John Wayne’s Legacy, Still Battling Cancer at the Odyssey Ball

From left, Anita Swift, Princess Zaziwe, Princess Zamaswazi, and J.R. Martinez at John Wayne’s Odyssey Ball.

From left, Anita Swift, Princess Zaziwe, Princess Zamaswazi, and J.R. Martinez at John Wayne’s Odyssey Ball.

John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” So when Dancing With the Stars champ, actor, author, motivational speaker, and U.S. Army veteran hosted the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary’s 29th Annual Odyssey Ball, he reminded everyone, “That’s what cancer survivors do every day.” Actually, the JWCI supporters at the Beverly Wilshire already knew that, with many doctors and their ground-breaking research teams in attendance.

All on hand knew J.R. Martinez was the perfect person to host and talk about courage. Well-informed, funny, and so likable he was getting hugs from everyone in-between dinner courses, J.R. launched the event by noting, “John Wayne remains a cinematic icon 35 years after his passing. He’s always named among people’s favorite actor, generation after generation. But ‘The Duke’ knew the real measure of a man is what he did off screen, and we can all learn from his example.”

Having “true grit” in his own DNA, J.R. is an inspiring example as well. “I always dreamed of being a high school football hero. I got injured, but my senior year I finally got to play in the state championship game. After high school I joined the Army, and in 2003 I was deployed to Iraq. Less than a month later my Humvee hit a roadside bomb. I suffered severe burns on more than a third of my body — I’m sure you can’t notice,” he smiled as he told his story. “I underwent 32 surgeries in nearly three years. I realized then that I had gone through my own pain as a means to help others.” That was 11 years ago, and he told the Odyssey Ball crowd about his own odyssey of how he tries to help people go from being a victim to being a survivor. J.R.’s positive spirit infused the gala night.

“I never saw myself as a TV star, but I’m happy to use whatever fame I have to give back. That’s a lesson we can all learn from John Wayne. It’s his John Wayne Cancer Institute that has become one of the most respected centers for research in the fight against cancer, and I’m proud to be here to honor Dr. Anton Bilchik and the family of beloved South African President Nelson Mandela,” he said.

Then J.R. introduced Anita Swift, John Wayne’s oldest grandchild and president of the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary, who said she was thrilled to have J.R. there “and I hope I get the first dance tonight.”

The lovely and dedicated Swift explained, “My grandfather’s final wish was to find a cure for cancer and for 35 years our family has done everything in our power to make that dream a reality, thanks to your support.” Anita’s “handsome uncle” Patrick Wayne, was also on hand to present the “True Grit” award honoring the Mandela family. Chairman of the Board at JWCI and The Duke’s son, Patrick mentioned that Nelson Mandela often said that his family suffered more than he did, and like John Wayne’s family has done, Mandela’s family has vowed to continue the Nobel Peace Laureate’s goal of helping others. Mandela’s granddaughters are also the daughters of the Prince of Swaziland, so Princess Zaziwe Diamini-Manaway and Princess Zamaswazi Diamini accepted the “True Grit” honor on behalf of the Mandela Family. They noted that former South Africa President Mandela (who battled prostate cancer) was informed of the award last year before his death in December at age 95.

Ethan Wayne, CEO of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, said his father was a man who believed in action more than talk, “and we try to bring the best talent to the fight.” That is why Dr. Anton Bilchik, Professor of Surgery and Chief of Medicine, John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John’s Health Center, was presented the “The Duke” Special Service Award. Ethan also did a touching tribute to the late Dr. Donald Morton, who was his father’s physician and creator of the JWCI Surgical Oncology Fellowship program.

There was wonderful entertainment which started with the UCLA Gospel Choir. Later in the spotlight was a “Music of the Night” performance by singer Davis Gaines, star of Broadway’s and LA’s Phantom of the Opera. Gaines’ rich voice wowed the crowd, and he finished with Dr. Bilchik’s favorite song “The Impossible Dream,” creating a real goose-bump moment. Grant Snyder did the fund-raising segment of the event, which ended with the beautiful music by the Tony Galla Orchestra featuring Billy Valentine so all the generous folks could dance the night away.

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