By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
The Anti-Defamation League’s 2018 A. I. Botnick Torch of Liberty Award was presented to former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason and Ochsner Hospital CEO Warner Thomas at a gala dinner on Wednesday evening, Dec. 5, at the New Orleans Marriott Hotel.
The dinner put on by the South Central Region of the ADL is its largest fund-raising event of the year and drew a crowd of over 625 people. “It was a great success,” according to South Central Region director Aaron Ahlquist.
Gleason, who recently became a father for the second time, has been battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, for several years now. Also known colloquially as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, the terminal illness atrophies muscles and eventually confines victims to wheelchairs and respirators in its final stages. Gleason accepted his award after moving onto the stage of his own volition during a video that told of his struggle and battle with ALS. A computer-generated voice delivered his acceptance speech via signals he sent to a special screen from commands of his eyes.
He accepted the award on behalf of the Team Gleason Foundation, which he and his wife set up to enable others battling ALS to be housed and to enjoy adventures at exciting destinations around the world.
Former Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief recalled meeting Gleason at his very first training camp and, because of his incredible energy, described him as “a lunatic,” a phrase he said he believed Gleason would appreciate and to which the crowd responded in laughter. Strief went on to state that his first game in the Louisiana Superdome was the Monday night game against the Atlanta Falcons in which Gleason famously blocked a punt that was run into the end zone for a touchdown and symbolized that New Orleans was back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
“In a moment of electricity, Steve gave hope back to the people and the city he would come to call home,” Strief said. “Thus, it’s no coincidence that he has dedicated his life to giving hope to people afflicted with the terrible disease that’s taken his body away from him. The formation of Team Gleason’s foundation was the beginning of Steve’s pursuit to change others like him, afflicted with this horrible disease.”
Strief went on to list the eight core values of the ADL as courage, standing up (for others), respect, collaboration, inclusion, integrity, credibility and accountability.
“I can’t imagine a better fit for the A.I. Botnick Torch of Liberty Award,” Strief continued. “Few people in our society can claim the level of courage as Steve Gleason. He has shared his life with the world without fear of embarrassment that may accompany some of his realities. His drive to stand up for others while standing up for others is a privilege he no longer enjoys. He’s demanded respect for those with physical disabilities and has caused many to question what is actually possible when dealt with life’s difficulties.”
Strief pointed to Team Gleason’s collaboration with Congress and the unanimous passage of the Steve Gleason Enduring Voices Act, which he said will provide enhanced care for thousands of people in the years to come. “Steve and his wife Michelle’s message of inclusion of people afflicted with neuromuscular diseases into all aspects of life has uplifted the spirits of countless patients around the globe,” he continued. “The integrity and credibilty of their foundation is second to none.”
Gleason’s desire to be the voice of those similarly afflicted with ALS, set him apart from others and makes him accountable, Strief added. “There is no triumph greater than the triumph of the human spirit. No couple I’ve ever met embodies that more than the Gleasons,” he concluded.
“I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Botnick. After learning who he was and the extent he went to in his fight for the rights of others, I’m all the more honored to be part of this event. For over 100 years the ADL has been committed to ensuring inclusiveness across the nation. This is a nation where diversity is a great and powerful strength rather than a liability,” Gleason’s computer-generated voice explained.
Gleason added that every 90 minutes a person is diagnosed with ALS and that every 90 minutes someone dies from the disease. No effective medical treatment existed during the time Lou Gehrig was diagnosed in the 1930s and that remains the case today, he noted sadly.
He pointed to great strides he and his foundation have made since his diagnosis. Gleason has utilized innovative technology and respirators to keep him alive and in the meantime worked to help others. “Like the ADL, we believe inclusiveness. We believe everyone should be given the opportunity not only to live, but to live triumphantly. Thank you again for this honor and always remember: ‘No white flags!'”
Thomas received his award as an acknowledgment of his work at Ochsner to fight prejudice and hate and support the ADL in his capacity as CEO.
“We have tremendous efforts going on in the workforce and in workforce development,” Thomas said in his acceptance speech, trumpeting the programs he has implemented and overseen to improve acceptance and tolerance in the medical field.
“With the mission the history and the background of ADL, we align on so many different things,” Thomas admitted. “The whole focus on promoting inclusion, unity and respect is vital to who we are as a community and as a community asset Ochsner is focused on how we can do that a better way.”
Thomas admitted he was bullied as a youth and pointed to Ochsner’s efforts in working with the ADL to push back against bullying, both in life and online. “I want to challenge you and everyone here. Let’s seek unity. Let’s seek common ground and make progress and it’s not just that we have to be a unifier. We have to speak out against people who want to be dividers. We have to take them on and understand it is our role and our obligation, our responsibility to bring our community to bring our area together,” Thomas said.
“Let’s work together and make every day and our world a much better place,” he concluded.
Earlier in the evening, Brook Bissinger and Sarah Vandergriff were given the Barney Mintz Leadership Award for their contributions by South Central Region associate director Lindsay Baach Friedmann.
Samantha Falgoust, a senior at Mt. Carmel Academy in Lakeview, was selected to read a poem she composed which was selected as the winner of a local contest to combat hate and to help bring about respect and inclusion among youth.