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Appreciating a Friend--Jamie Lee Curtis

This Spring, I have particularly come to appreciate all of my friends and family members, my colleagues, the medical teams, supermarket staff, volunteers and all of the people on whom we come to rely for our daily needs. So many of them are true philanthropists with their time, their talent and/or their funds, always giving to others.


Social distancing has caused me to review my life and my career. I have remembered things that I have never had time to remember when I was working, raising my daughter, ensuring that our life's needs were met. There is one story that I couldn't help but reflect upon (and relive) multiple times during this period--although it has been published previously, when someone is so generous and special, it bears repeating many times over.


Meeting Jamie Lee Curtis was not what I expected it to be—I really couldn’t have imagined what was in store for us for the future. I couldn’t have imagined she would be such a giving individual. I couldn’t imagine she would become my friend.


It was the late 1990’s and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh had decided it was time to develop a gala. Several volunteers assumed responsibility as chairs: Tricia and Bill Kassling and Cheryl and Steve Schwarzwaelder. I was out of my element. My career had been built on major gifts rather than special events. But I mustered my courage and forged forward.


We explored celebrities with whom our hospital had a relationship. I remembered that in years while I lived abroad Jamie Lee Curtis visited Children’s to donate an abundant number of videos and spend time with our patients. On the spot I was elected to contact her and find out if she would chair our gala. Me? Oh, I was without portfolio for this type of thing. But, in one of many times over my career, I put a smile on my face and said, Sure, of course, I would love to. Gulp.


One of my colleagues, Sue Cardillo, had handled PR at the time. She found a phone number that we both hoped worked. She told me Jamie had met a young girl during one of her movie productions. This young girl needed a transplant. Jamie had helped with fundraising events in the girl’s hometown to ensure that she raised enough to pay for her operation.


Nervously, I used that number and got Jamie’s answering machine. Later that day she returned my call, but when she announced who she was one of the office assistants thought it was a joke, so she didn’t put her through. I panicked. I tried again. This time the assistant found me during a meeting at the Rangos Research Center that I was having with one of our physicians, Dr. Massimo Trucco. He handed me the phone and said, “Gayle, it's Jamie Lee Curtis.” Gulp again. I am really star struck.


Jamie told me she was very busy and couldn’t come to the gala, but that she would donate something special for the event. I continued to keep her updated on what we saw as remarkable progress. She wanted more details. I told her the event was themed around her new book: Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods that Make My Day. The book had just been published and had some memorable verses and whimsical illustrations by Laura Cornell. Perfect for a children’s hospital.


Before I knew it we had reached capacity at the Fox Chapel Golf Club. Then, three weeks before the event, Jamie called to tell me she was coming…excitement abounded. We worked very hard with the club to expand capacity.


Meanwhile Jamie went on a national show in NY that day and talked about Children’s and the event she planned to attend that night, giving us some wonderful national publicity.


I got to accompany Jamie from the airport, and she was much more than I could ever have imagined. As we settled into the car, with me completely tongue tied, she asked immediately for a list of people who she could call in anticipation of the evening. She had natural instincts.


She called our CEO, our Medical Director, the Chair of the Board. She called the chairs of the event and several of our key donors who would be there. She wanted to ensure a connection with everyone. She was reaching high for a successful evening, a great model of competence. All the while she was insisting that we not pay anything for her stay—it all had to be gratis.


She asked me how much I thought we would raise. I told her I had hoped for $150,000 net. I could see she wanted to do better than that.


Jamie wanted to meet some of the patients from the hospital. She met a young girl named Katie who was suffering from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, and the two instantly formed a bond. Katie was being treated and was in bed and was wearing a pink wig. In a note of solidarity, Jamie asked if she could borrow that wig for the evening. That night, wearing Katie’s pink wig, Jamie told the audience Katie’s story and pushed for higher bids for the auction. Then she asked for outright contributions.


No one ever needed to give Jamie a script. She did everything from a generous heart. Fundraising was in her blood.


Jamie announced that she and her husband, Christopher, would be giving $10,000—she invited people who would match her gift to come to the stage. Twenty-three people came out of the audience to join her.


People were simply overwhelmed by Jamie’s commitment. That night, we raised $500,000.

I will never forget that evening. The chairs were wonderful, the committee was so generous with auction items, the guests were excited in their bidding. Although I was involved only for the next two years, Jamie continued to chair the event for a total of seven years. She inspired philanthropy. She helped raise millions of dollars for pediatric research. She extended friendship to many new donors and friends. She helped to develop a united front for our donors internally and externally. She inspired a culture of philanthropy.


Jamie Lee Curtis and I

Jamie is a remarkable yet regular person. She entertained some of our close donors in Los Angeles. She invited Katie and her family to visit, making chocolate chip cookies for them that day. She quietly came back into town and we had a game day with Katie and her family (Jamie’s very competitive.) No publicity, just from the goodness of her heart.


She wanted to meet my husband and my daughter while she was here. She told me my daughter was ‘delicious.’


Sometimes she would simply call to find out how things were with me. Every call was treasured, although I was still pretty tongue-tied with her.


Jamie enjoying herself at the event

She told me that she and Christopher were making a planned gift for Children’s Hospital.

In a salute to her generosity of spirit, Children’s established a chair in her name: The Jamie Lee Curtis Endowed Chair in Pediatric Transplantation. $1.5 million from a corporation and a foundation who both wished to remain anonymous. The endowment was another way to solidify excellence for one of our international programs. And to enrich our relationship with Jamie while saluting her commitment.


When I left Children’s, Jamie sent me a beautiful bouquet of yellow roses with a note: Change is very healthy—good luck with everything. That was very encouraging. I had worked at Children’s for 27 years by then and it was great to have such a friend reach out.


Years later when UPMC’s Department of Transplantation was celebrating an anniversary year of Dr. Thomas Starzl’s work, we invited Jamie to MC the event—of course, she was willing to do that and did a spectacular job. As she got into the car from the airport she wanted to call Art and Greta Rooney who were major sponsors with the Steelers. She called her old friends Teri and Damian Soffer and several others. She remembered them from the galas at Children's. She always sought to establish connections.


She wanted to see a photo of my daughter and to share photos of her children, Annie and Tom. She autographed photos of herself to give to patients and families. This enormous celebrity was simply in town to help us make an impact on the lives of people who would benefit from her time and talent.


Jamie Lee Curtis is a remarkable woman. I can imagine that she is sheltered-in right now, but doing special things for the community of Los Angeles. A true philanthropist who shares her heart and celebrity to make a world a more livable place for people who need her. And she’s my friend.

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