Longtime Shepherd Center Donor and Volunteer Builds Links of Steadfast Support
Billi Marcus propels Shepherd Center's golf tournament.
When Billi Marcus decided to ask her neighbor, Dennis Cooper, then senior vice president of RTM Restaurants, to sponsor the Shepherd Center golf tournament, she prepared a 15-minute speech.
She practiced her pitch on one of the all-time best in marketing, her husband, Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot. When she felt sufficiently prepared, she headed over to Dennis’ house and started in on her appeal about the merits of supporting a place like Shepherd Center.
Three minutes into it, Dennis said “yes.”
Still, she continued on. “At the end, he said, ‘Billi, you need to know when yes means yes,’” Billi Marcus recalls. “But I had practiced it and felt like I had to keep going.”
That was in 1988, the first year she agreed to chair the golf tournament. Her tenure would run another 15 years – orchestrating and managing what would become the RTM Challenge. With her neighbor’s unfailing support, Billi helped raise nearly $3.5 million for capital projects and other initiatives that affected nearly every aspect of patient care at Shepherd Center.
The years of hard work were inspired by a first-hand visit to what was then Shepherd Spinal Center. Billi was already familiar with Shepherd through her husband, who had been a generous donor. “But then I went to visit and I was so impressed,” she says. “I wanted to volunteer, and I thought my skills would best be suited to running the golf tournament.”
Besides recruiting the sponsors for RTM – the largest franchisee of Arby’s Roast Beef restaurants and the owner of Mrs. Winner’s Fried Chicken restaurants – Billi also secured the support of some key individuals. Julian Mohr signed on as co-chair, a job he held for nine of the 16 years Billi led the event. Two good friends, Carol Sue Legum and Caryl Paller, worked by her side. Other co-chairs included Jim Groome, Tommy Tillman and Jim Dockter.
As a result, the RTM Challenge grew each year – both in terms of the money it raised and the number of golfers it attracted. In fact, the site of the tournament changed several times to accommodate the increasing number of golfers. Venues included the Atlanta Country Club, the Atlanta Athletic Club, the Cherokee Country Club and Chateau Elan, which featured three, 18-hole courses to host Atlanta’s largest and most successful amateur charity golf tournament under her leadership.
“Billi was always motivated by her genuine concern for our patients and their families,” says Dell Sikes, Shepherd Center’s retired vice president of development, who worked with Billi all the years she co-chaired the tournament. “She was a tenacious fundraiser who worked on the tournament year-round to make it better each year. She is one of those rare volunteers who worked with a passion for Shepherd and our special mission. The money she raised made a real difference in the lives of our patients.”
In 2002, Billi Marcus stepped down as chairman of the RTM Challenge, deciding it was time to pass the baton to others. But the good feeling she received from helping Shepherd has not diminished over time – far from it.
“I have a connection to Shepherd that will always be there,” Billi says. “You walk away a better person having known all the people there and watching what they do. Shepherd doesn’t just fix the broken body, they fix the broken spirit. That’s what they do best.”
By Sara Baxter
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neurological conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.