Corvettes help St. Jude Children’s Hospital

The parade of gleaming Corvettes traveled along in the left lane of the interstate highway at a stately pace, a caravan headed to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

That line of storied sports cars included Dennis Waddell of Rock Island and Bill Firth of Taylor Ridge in the former’s crystal-red 2011 Corvette Grand Sport Coupe. Roger and Amber Koppen of Davenport traveled in the couple’s 2008 Corvette coupe, painted velocity yellow with a black racing stripe.

The owners are all members of Mid-West Corvettes, a 52-year-old club based in Milan and sponsored by Eriksen Chevrolet.

They participated in the first-ever St. Jude Corvette Drive, which was held in early May. The ride was sponsored by Uftring Chevrolet in Washington, Ill., but members of the Milan club were invited to join the fundraiser in Peoria.

Corvette motorcade

The parade of cars impressed the Quad-City residents, who got a crash course about driving in sync with one another. The entourage left Peoria early on a Thursday morning with a police escort, red lights flashing.

Each Corvette had an emblem on its side to indicate that it was part of the St. Jude fundraiser. They kept a slow pace throughout the trip to Memphis. The drivers had all prepaid for their gasoline, so that came into play when they stopped every two hours for a break.

“Gassing up was unbelievable,” Waddell said. “We had paid already, so we pulled up to the pumps, filled up and moved on. It was like an out-of-body experience.”

The group included four support vehicles: two minivans with drinks and food, a vehicle to care for any breakdowns and a $2.1 million motor home.

“It was so well organized,” Waddell said.

When the parade drew within 20 miles of its destination in Memphis, six police officers on motorcycles rode out to greet them. The police escorted the Corvettes into the city. Near the Memphis limits, they were joined by black police vehicles and the cyclists blocked traffic on side streets while the Corvettes moved as one through the city.

“It was like a presidential motorcade,” Roger Koppen said.

“You wish you could bottle up how important you felt,” his wife agreed. “They used amazing techniques, and it was fun to watch the police on motorcycles.”

Kids and ‘Vettes

The next day, the Corvettes paraded to the St. Jude facility. Seventeen of the 34-plus vehicles involved were chosen for the activity, including both of the Corvettes from the Quad-Cities.

Drivers parked in a circle at St. Jude and then left their vehicles to attend a program. They learned about research efforts at the hospitals and got a better understanding of what is accomplished at St. Jude. They split into groups to tour the buildings and grounds.

After the tour, children from St. Jude were invited to explore the cars. The owners opened up the Corvettes and allowed the youngsters free rein. The kids crawled inside the vehicles, blew the horns and asked a lot of questions, Waddell said.

“Those kids had a blast,” Angie Wiebler agreed. “The rags that were first being used on the cars were also being used to wipe up the tears of the drivers after the kids showed up!” she added. Wiebler is the Peoria-based events manager for St. Jude, which means she works with rides, runs and other fundraisers that originate in the central Illinois community.

Successful fundraiser

The Corvette Drive brought in $50,000 for St. Jude, Wiebler said. Each Corvette owner was asked to raise $1,500 for the event, but the two cars from the Quad-Cities brought in $5,000.

Waddell expects more cars from this area to be involved in 2013. Firth, for example, has a grandson who battled and beat cancer as a youngster. That was part of his incentive to be in the fundraiser, he explained. He also owns a Corvette and plans to participate next year.

The Quad-Citians all were very impressed with the St. Jude hospital, which they had never visited before.

“I was blown away,” Amber Koppen said. “I didn’t realize how much went on there.” The hospital area was not as large as might be expected, but the research facilities were enormous, she added.

Amber Koppen was also affected by the feeling she got while touring St. Jude.

“There was an overall sense of joy, no matter who you came upon at St. Jude. The aura of the people there, workers or the patients who were getting treatment, everyone had a positive outlook and positive vibe,” she said.

While the cars were driven rather slowly during the parade to St. Jude, the drivers were on their own for the return trip.

“We went a lot faster home than we had on the way down,” Amber Koppen said.

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