The annual event is called Wings Across Tennessee. The participants include members of the Gold Wings Road Riders of America (GWRRA). The group’s website describes the organization as the largest motorcycle club on Earth. Those who departed from the Tri-Cities Friday morning are members of GWRRA’s TN-C chapter. As they cross the state, they will be joined by members of other GWRRA chapters.
Law enforcement agencies from multiple jurisdictions provide a police escort during portions of the journey, especially through metropolitan areas.
This is the event’s 23rd annual run. Over the years, its donations to St. Jude have totaled more than $1 million, with the majority coming from the Tri-Cities area.
A special delegation along for this year’s ride is participating in support of a local boy diagnosed with leukemia this year. His name is Kingston and St. Jude accepted him as a patient within 24 hours of his diagnosis in February, Tasha Rogers said Friday. Kingston’s mom is Rogers’ best friend, she said. Rogers thinks of him as her nephew and he considers her his aunt. Rogers and her boyfriend, Blake Watson, were going to make the trip in a truck and display a “team” flag from the “KingstonCan” campaign friends and family organized to support Kingston and his family.
“Since being at St. Jude, he’s become cancer-free,” Rogers said. “He had a bone marrow transplant on his seventh birthday, June 15th. Hopefully, if all goes as planned, he will be home by the end of September. If not, first of or middle of October. He’ll have to go back and forth some for follow-up treatment, but he’ll be cancer-free and completely in remission.”
St. Jude covers all medical costs for patients and also provides transportation and lodging for their families.
Some history about the ride:
• In the summer of 1996, Mike Taylor said it would be rewarding for the chapter to do something for the children being helped at St. Jude. Members soon organized a “cruise-in,” took pictures of participating cars and motorcycles and sold the photos for donations to the hospital.
• Taylor contacted Dot Xiques (pronounced Hickus) at St. Jude to ask if the motorcycle club could conduct a ride concluding at the hospital to deliver the donation. Xiques said that had never been done before, but she sought and received the OK for the group to do so.
• On a Friday morning that October, a group of members headed to Memphis. Keith Marsh, James Daugherty, Larry Roberts and Taylor rode their motorcycles. Nyoka Holder, Carolyn Taylor and Ginger (a patient of St. Jude living in Elizabethton) made the trip in a van. Jon and Nancy Byrd rode their motorcycle from Florida and joined the others in Lebanon, Tenn.
• The next morning, the group arrived at St. Jude. After opening their own pockets to add to the money already collected, club members proudly presented $5,000 to the hospital. They were given a tour of the facility, and a staff member there saw the potential for the cruise-in" concept and created a slogan still used today — “Cruisin’ for St. Jude” — used to appeal to other motorcycle groups interested in raising funds and traveling to the hospital.
• In 1997, Tom Jarrell, chapter director, named the GWRRA TN-C’s ride “Wings Across Tennessee” to reflect that the ride really crosses the entire state from Bristol to Memphis.
“People in the Tri-Cities are very generous when it comes to helping charitable causes. St. Jude’s is a local charity, because ... right around the Bristol area, we know of 36 children who are patients at St. Jude’s Hospital. So it touches every community. They’ve done miraculous things with medicine and curing cancer in children. I had a first cousin die from leukemia at age 13 back before Danny Thomas started the hospital back in 1962. The first time (Wings Across Tennessee) went to the hospital, we were told that when the hospital opened in 1962 leukemia had a mortality rate of 92 percent. Now the survival rate is 92 percent. It has completely reversed that survival rate. It’s really exciting.”
Jim Watson’s son, now 16, was diagnosed at age 10 with a brain tumor, which proved to be a very aggressive form of cancer.
“We found that out here at Bristol,” Watson said Friday morning as the group prepared to depart on the Wings Across Tennessee ride. “Our doctor felt sure that we could take him to the University of Virginia and get it taken care of ... which they did. They pulled a mass and the biopsy showed a very aggressive brain cancer — very rare. They didn’t give us a whole lot of hope. Nobody that we talked to really had any hopes to help us but St. Jude’s. We talked to the pathologist up there (at the University of Virginia) and this is the way we put it to him: ‘What would you do if he was your son?’ He said, ‘I’d take him to St. Jude’s.’ That’s how we ended up there. It’s a wonderful hospital. Every penny that is given there we’re thankful for, because we still use it.”
Watson’s family spent nine months at St. Jude as his son underwent intensive rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Like all families served by St. Jude, the Watsons incurred no costs for their son’s medical treatment or their stay in Memphis.
“Our story is basically like everybody else’s who has been through there,” Watson said. “No patient, no family, ever pays a dime to St. Jude’s. They gave us housing while we were there, they gave us food while we were there, they gave us transportation while we were there. We needed nothing. I mean that; nothing did we need while we were there. All we had to focus on was taking care of our son. Everything else was given to us. That’s the way they want it.They want you concentrating on taking care of your sick child and not having to worry about bills piling up.”
Watson’s son is doing well and due for a checkup at St. Jude on Monday and Tuesday. If he gets the all-clear, he won’t have to go back for another checkup for one year.
“We’re very thankful for that,” Watson said. “God has been good to us for him and I give all the credit to Him. He’s the mighty, mighty physician. The mighty healer. It’s a wonderful hospital. But you can give the same treatment to 10 kids and it don’t turn out the same. So we know who is in charge.”
The Watson family has been participating in the Wings Across Tennessee cruise for St. Jude for five years.
“We love this bunch,” Watson said. “We can’t say enough about them.They’re wonderful people. They’ve got a good thing going. And they’ve kept steady at it for many, many years.”
The last thing the group did before heading out was to gather in prayer, led by Jarrell, who in part gave thanks for St. Jude and the vision Danny Thomas had to found the hospital.
But before that, they gave a rousing thank you to Friendship Motorsports President, CEO and founder Mitch Walters and his staff.
Watson said Walters and his employees bent over backwards to help in any way they could.
Walters said the business is honored to help.
“I wish I was going with you,” Walter said. “Our home is your home. You come in anytime. Enjoy yourself. God bless you and be safe, OK?”