Banker still stands tall for ALS benefit
By KAREN BRUNE MATHIS, The Times-Union
As promised, retired Jacksonville banker Tom Becker stood tall on Monday to welcome friends to an annual golf tournament in his name that raises funds for ALS research.
"I'm a miracle," he says. "I've not been restricted. I'm able to do whatever I want."
Becker, 61, was diagnosed 71/2 years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
The effects are becoming more pronounced. He says he lost about 70 pounds from his 6-foot-1 frame, now weighing 138, and he says his hands, arms and shoulders are very weak. He must chew slowly and completely so he doesn't choke on food.
The nerve disease causes muscles to waste away while the mind remains sharp. Life expectancy averages two to five years after diagnosis, although that varies. There is no cure.
But during an already emotional event, another Jacksonville business leader shared with the 120 golfers that he has been diagnosed.
At the awards ceremony, Henry "Tip" Graham, whose company made a three-year commitment to be the tournament's primary sponsor, told the participants he has ALS.
Graham, 58, said after the ceremony that he was diagnosed in April. "It is progressing slowly," he says. "I have tremendous support from my family and my company."
Graham says people never know where their "personal journey in life" might take them.
Married with three grown children, he says that "in times like this, you look for angels, and I am surrounded by them."
Graham is president and chief executive officer of Scott-McRae Group, which owns Duval Ford, Honda, Acura and Mazda of Jacksonville.
"This is an important event in the community," he says of the tournament, which raised $70,000 this year and $400,000 over the past four years.
During his remarks to the group, he also thanked Jacksonville General Counsel Rick Mullaney for coming to him to ask for corporate support of the tournament. Mullaney's father died of ALS in March 2006.
He also said Becker's "leadership in this event is an inspiration to the whole community."
The Tom Becker/ALS Golf for Life Tournament, played at Deerwood Country Club, donated proceeds to the ALS Clinic at Mayo, the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins and the Florida Chapter of the ALS Association.
Becker was prepared for the low end of the survival rate.
"If you had told me 71/2 years ago I would be here today, I wouldn't have believed you," he says. So far, he has not required the intense care he will eventually need.
Those with ALS "have to be dressed, have to be fed, have to be cleaned up. There are very few things we can do for ourselves," he says.
He and his wife of 39 years, Mary Beth, moved full-time to North Carolina, near two of their three sons. A third son lives in Seattle.
"Care-giving is a very tough job," he says. "It is the highest-stress job in America."
Becker made a pledge after he asked all of the golfers to promise to participate next year.
"I'll do my darndest to be here to greet you," he said, drawing a standing ovation.
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