AKRON—Never let it be said that tire dealers—even former ones—aren't generous when a charitable cause touches their hearts. Such is the case with a fundraising drive for the late Walter Payton, 45, the former Chicago Bears star running back who died Nov. 1 from a liver disease and cancer.
When, earlier this year, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s John Gamauf challenged the company's dealers to open their wallets and ante up for the Walter Payton Foundation—which offers financial and motivational support for abused and neglected children—they did just that. He set a target of $100,000 by year's end. Thanks to some generous dealers, that goal line recently was crossed.
Credit at least some of that success to the gregariousness of Mr. Gamauf, BFS vice president of consumer tire sales—a guy with a reputation as a pretty good open-field runner himself in the arena of pushing tire units.
But it was the generosity of dealers that made the difference.
Many had met and admired Mr. Payton—also a racing team owner and motivational speaker—who regularly addressed dealer groups after hanging up his cleats. When they heard he suffered from a rare liver disease, they pulled a fourth-and-goal rally for the foundation.
Following a Sept. 13 story in Tire Business about the fund drive, which at that point had raised a little better than $65,000 from BFS and its dealers, Mr. Gamauf said dealers began calling him.
Then, one day as he sat in Yankee Stadium watching a baseball game, his cell phone rang. It was Jim Berlin, former owner and CEO of Akron-based Tire Centers Inc., a BFS customer for 13 years until the dealership was acquired earlier this year by Michelin North America Inc.
"He said he really liked the article, and asked me how much we needed to get to our goal," Mr. Gamauf recalled.
Shortly afterward, he received a note from Mr. Berlin saying he was "happy to get this chance to `give back' something to such a worthy cause...." Along with it was a "very sizeable" donation.
Mr. Gamauf then attended a meeting of another BFS customer, Heafner Tire Group Inc., which produced $5,500 in donations from dealers. That and a $5,000 check from entertainer and sports commentator Roy Firestone put the Payton campaign over the top.
Before his death, Mr. Payton was in the Mayo Clinic for a month awaiting a liver transplant. His health had deteriorated to the point where the once-powerful athlete had become a mere shadow of his former self.
Mr. Gamauf first met the football star in 1995, when his Payton-Coyne Race Team switched its three Indy cars from Goodyears to Firestone tires. Mr. Payton, who himself raced for several years, then began doing some motivational talks annually for BFS.
When his health problems arose, the fundraising began as a one-man campaign to support the efforts of a buddy in need. Now, with Mr. Payton gone, Mr. Gamauf has vowed to continue the fundraiser, and set a new goal of a quarter-million dollars by the end of 2000.