LOS ANGELES—If it were not for Jerry Saunders of Fairmount Tire & Rubber Co. Inc. in Los Angeles, Noemi Vargas and Maria Berumen probably would not be registered nurses helping pregnant, at-risk patients in the city's Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center, a number of small, independent tire businesses he financed would not exist and more needy individuals would go homeless and hungry. Mr. Saunders, 57, is the 1999 recipient of the Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award, given annually by Tire Business to recognize an independent tire dealer or retreader who's made a difference in his or her community through charitable or civic contributions.
The humanitarian award was presented to Mr. Saunders by Tire Business Editor and Publisher Dave Zielasko Nov. 3 at the Tire Association of North America's convention and trade show in Las Vegas. The award includes an engraved bronze medallion and a $1,000 donation to the charity of the recipient's choice.
This year, the money will go to the Fairmount Tire Educational Foundation, which Mr. Saunders established seven years ago.
Thanks to that foundation, Ms. Vargas and Ms. Berumen—and dozens of deserving individuals like them—have acquired the training necessary to become qualified health-care providers.
To date, the foundation has distributed approximately $700,000 to 75 people for such purposes.
Besides ministering to pregnant patients at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and premature births, the two young registered nurses also instruct others in operating the state-of-the-art maternal cardiovascular-system monitoring equipment needed for such work.
The nursing services they and their team provide have spared hundreds of women and their babies unnecessary anxiety, Caesarean sections and time in the nursery.
However, the educational foundation represents only one aspect of Mr. Saunders' varied humanitarian contributions, which include:
Raising more than $1.5 million over the last two decades to help find a cure for diabetes;
Helping other would-be entrepreneurs launch tire dealerships of their own;
Befriending the homeless; and
Collecting food and other necessities for the needy.
``Jerry believes in family,'' wrote Dunlop Tire Corp. President and CEO David Campbell in a letter supporting Mr. Saunders' nomination. But, he added, ``Jerry's family is not just his immediate loved ones—or the numerous people he has helped start their own businesses or his business associates like me.
``Jerry's family are those individuals who, over the space of decades, have crossed his path with an obvious commitment to do something very good, with a true need and a willingness to give of themselves.''
A good example is nurse Vargas. Now 30 and the mother of three, she had been a teen-age mother while still in high school. At first, Ms. Vargas said, she didn't think she was intellectually capable of successfully completing an RN training program. But her benefactor, Mr. Saunders, thought otherwise.
Ms. Vargas said she was profoundly touched by Mr. Saunders' generosity.``He went to our graduation.... He's like the father I never had.
``Nursing school wasn't easy. Sometimes I wanted to quit, but felt I couldn't let my `dad' down. I appreciated the money he gave me and didn't take it for granted. I might have gotten through the classes with just C's, but I did my best for him.''
Dr. Edward Hon, inventor of the fetal heart monitor and Ms. Vargas' and Ms. Berumen's supervisor, called Mr. Saunders' generosity in financing the nurses' education ``a triumph of the human spirit.''
``There are pictures of babies on the wall at the hospital,'' Dr. Hon said. ``Most wouldn't be there if it weren't for people like Neomi and Maria. Grateful mothers bring in those pictures and send us others of their children's birthday parties.
``We need to multiply people like Noemi and Maria. We'll use all these students to deliver world-class care if Jerry can expand the nursing fellowship. We'll take these kids and train them to become super specialists.''
Randall L. Clark, former Dunlop Tire chairman and CEO and now chairman of Dunn Tire Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y., wrote that Mr. Saunders has matched dollar-for-dollar every outside contribution received to date by Jerry's Foundation for Diabetic Research, which he started in 1981. The foundation supports a research center at the Univeristy of California—Los Angeles.
``Jerry's philanthropy is, by any measure, considerable,'' Mr. Clark said, ``and the passion of his personal involvement in those efforts is unmatched. I know of no individual in this industry more deserving of the Humanitarian Award than Jerry Saunders. His immense generosity is a source of pride and an example for our industry.''
Normally shy about receiving public attention, Mr. Saunders told Tire Business that the only reason he agreed to be interviewed was because his son, Brad, had nominated him for the award.
``It's not what you have that you're judged by. It's what you have given when you're here that matters,'' said Mr. Saunders, replying to a question about what motivates his generosity.
In 1958, while only 16 and still in high school, Mr. Saunders opened his tire store on Slauson Avenue, using $2,500 he had gotten from his bar mitzvah. Today, that store and his distribution center constitute the largest single business in the South-Central area of Los Angeles.
He describes Fairmount Tire as an organization, or ``family,'' of 56 tire dealerships in California, Arizona and Nevada.
Mr. Saunders said he selected a career in the tire business because he was interested in cars, the field didn't require an extensive education and he loved business and people. His South-Central L.A. location was all he could afford at the time, but he wouldn't dream of relocating the business today, he said.
``South-Central is made up of absolute solid citizens who work hard and raise good people. I feel right at home here,'' he said. In the 1965 Watts riots, someone put a red mark on the business to indicate Jerry was all right, and his shop wasn't touched.
What makes Jerry run?
Holding his hands out in a gesture, Mr. Saunders explained: ``I live from (insulin) shot to shot to shot. I appreciate family. It's not dollars, it's people. It's the relationships. Money doesn't mean everything. It's about unconditional love. When your cup is full, anything overflowing is just wasted.''
But in 1952, that cup was anything but full. He was 10 years old when his doctor delivered what must have sounded like a death sentence. ``He told me I wouldn't live past 50, that I wouldn't be able to hold down a full-time job or have a family.''
The Los Angeles youth had gone to the doctor for a ``very bad flu.'' When it turned out to be early-onset diabetes, the physician ``gave up on me. He couldn't control the diabetes,'' Mr. Saunders recalled. His condition made him feel ``very angry.''
However, another medical professional, Dr. Joe Brown, saw things differently. The boy wound up under his care because the Saunders family was poor and the UCLA diabetes clinic charged only $1 a visit.
``He told me I was at the crossroads: Did I want to have a normal life or be a cripple? He became my mentor, my adviser—like a father, giving me the direction and support I needed. He told me if I did take care of myself—if I exercised and watched my diet—I would lead a normal life, achieve my dreams and desires.''
Mr. Saunders said his present-day contributions are the legacy of Dr. Brown and his grandmother, Elizabeth. ``She taught me the values of life: what it meant to give and share,'' he said.
But to fully understand Mr. Saunders, it helps to walk in his footsteps.
Weekdays, at the crack of dawn, he briskly makes the rounds of the bakery and coffee shop haunts of the rich and famous in Beverly Hills, where he has lived since 1972.
For years, he's been picking up day-old baked goods and taking them to South-Central by 7:30 each morning. There, most of it winds up at Greater Mt. Calvary, a Baptist church run by his friend, the Reverend Eddie Ray Thomas.
Seven nights a week, Mr. Saunders again hits the streets of Beverly Hills—the walks are part of the deal he made with himself and Dr. Brown four decades ago: ``Exercise equals life.'' As he pauses on occasion to greet—more often than not with a hug and humor—doormen, hostesses and restaurant owners, one quickly gets the impression Mr. Saunders is something of a fixture in ZIP code 90210.
Meanwhile, his success at ``turning round, black rubber hoops into green dollars'' as Mr. Saunders puts it, has enabled him to become something of a one-man enterprise zone—helping employees and other dealers get on their feet.
``He's the nicest person I have ever met,'' said Miguel Sanchez, who started Avalon Tire & Wheel after Mr. Saunders purchased a 10,000-sq.-foot building, spent thousands of dollars upgrading it and installed the ``best equipment'' so Mr. Sanchez and his wife, Marcy, could run their own business.
``I keep wondering when this dream will end,'' Mr. Sanchez said, adding that Mr. Saunders never has asked for anything in writing.
``It's incredible,'' Mr. Sanchez said. ``I have over half a million dollars in inventory, brand new air conditioning and a top-of-the-line alignment machine. I'll never let him down.''
Joe Childs, of Affordable Childs, a tire outlet in Palmdale, Calif., said Mr. Saunders ``loaned me money with no questions asked. Substantial amounts. It gives you peace of mind knowing that if you need anything, Jerry's there for you.
``I've learned a lot from him,'' said Mr. Childs, who's been part of the ``Fairmount family'' for about 15 years. ``One of his sayings is that he works a half-day—meaning 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. He's there every day, all day.''
Others offer their own insights.
Ron Bain, of Wholesale Tire Service in Stanton, Calif., said ``Bill Gates could learn a lot from Jerry.''
Calling Mr. Saunders ``the best friend ever a person could have,'' Mr. Bain added: ``He's a guy who is truly dedicated to helping other people instead of stepping on you to get ahead. There are not many people out there like Jerry.''
Jeff Fitzgerald, of Motion Tire in Ridgecrest, Calif., talked of Mr. Saunders' genuine caring and support. ``With Jerry, it's more than just business....(I)f push comes to shove, it's the family before the business.''
Said Sandy Velez, Fairmount Tire's office manager for 20 years: ``Jerry's a people person. He befriends the customer. He enjoys being here and at the retail store. He just loves people.''
In the deep, comforting voice of a community minister, Rev. Thomas, a friend of 40 years, added: ``I find joy and inspiration when I go into the tire shop and find Jerry not talking philosophy, but living philosophy.''