Episode 73

St Pete X features business and civic leaders in St. Petersburg Florida who share their insight, expertise and love of our special city. An initiative of the St. Petersburg Group, St Pete X strives to connect and elevate the city by sharing the voices of its citizens, and to bring awareness to the opportunities offered by the great St. Petersburg renaissance.

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04/05/2021 | Episode 73 | 38:56

Joel Momberg - USF Foundation CEO, ACH Foundation VP, novelist

Joel Momberg - USF Foundation CEO, ACH Foundation VP, novelist

Joel Momberg is a people person, and it has served him well. Momberg spent 30 years with All Children’s Hospital, in a range of fundraising roles including Executive Vice President of the ACH Foundation, and 10 more as Chief Executive Officer for the University of South Florida Foundation, before retiring in 2019. “The key is," he explains, "if you’re a good fundraiser you rarely really ask for money." Momberg recently published his third novel, "For Those Who Can."

Key Insights

  • When Judy Genshaft and donor Les Muma asked him to sign with USF, Momberg was stunned. "I couldn’t believe somebody would offer me that kind of job."
  • His background was in teaching, marketing and PR. "Then I started learning what development really was, then realized that it was all about relationships."
  • Necessary for successful fundraising: Passion, a practical sense and a tactical side. And: "I think you have to really like people. You have to like what you’re doing."
  • Listening, Momberg insists, is a crucial talent. "I think the mistake that a lot of folks in my business do is they go in right away. And they’re selling whatever the nonprofit is right off the bat."
  • While at All Children's Hospital, Momberg helped engineer the local version of the national Children's Miracle Network Telethon, raising $4 million to $5 million every year.
  • Wealthy people are naturally wary, he says. "Because those folks are used to being asked for money, they’re waiting for it when you first meet them. The fact that I was a development officer going to call on these people, they knew what I was there for."
  • Because of "new writer insecurity" his first novel, 'Home Movies," took 15 years to complete. "Sammy," the second novel, took two years.
  • On having to market his books: "I feel like the energy I want to put in is the creative part. I don’t really want to market myself and do all that, but I know they’re not going to sell themselves."

Joel Momberg is a people person, and it has served him well. Momberg spent 30 years with All Children’s Hospital, in a range of fundraising roles including Executive Vice President of the ACH Foundation, and 10 more as Chief Executive Officer for the University of South Florida Foundation, before retiring in 2019. “The key is,” he explains, “if you’re a good fundraiser you rarely really ask for money.” Momberg recently published his third novel, “For Those Who Can.”


It finally got to the point that I was not really intimidated by someone because of their stature or their wealth. And I was impressed with them for what they did and what they stood for."

I have talked people out of donations too. It’s not uncommon for someone to want to give you money to do a certain thing that you know the organization is not set up to do."

Welcome sir.

Thank you.

You’ve had a significant run I would say, a good run. I think to set context, we’ll hit that a little bit. And I’m going to go through just the basic skeleton. And then you can fill in a few of the gaps.

Sure, I’ll be happy to.

Teaching earlier on, including a stint over in Europe. Came back here to Canterbury to teach through some connections there. That led you to All Children’s.

That’s right.

And after a long, storied career there, you moved on for a few years to USF.

That’s right.

So, add a little meat to that skeleton.

Well, I started as a travelling teacher doing a series of things. Ultimately, I taught seventh grade social studies when I hit Europe. I was in Vienna, and met a couple of teachers who had jobs in St. Pete Florida. And they said they were going to Canterbury School. And they said, “What do you think?” and I saw I’m not doing anything, “I think that’d be great,” but I always wanted to see Florida. So, that’s what brought me to Florida. Wound up teaching elementary school and middle school at Canterbury. And taught with a woman named Caroline Horton who was a language teacher. She was married to Lloyd Horton who was actually the head of development at All Children’s Hospital.

He offered me a job, but it would not happen today. I didn’t have the background for it, but I think my science in education. And I had a graphic and marketing background, because that’s what I studied in school which all hit together. So, I really ran the PR department at All Children’s when he hired me. And he taught me all about fundraising. So, 30 years later I was actually ready to retire, but the economy took a nosedive. And my wife said, “I don’t think you can afford to quit just yet.” And we had just finished a big campaign at All Children’s. Then we just started discussions with Johns Hopkins.

USF came calling and Judy Genshaft and one of their large donors, Les Muma, came to visit me and offered me a job at the University of South Florida. And I was blown away. Honestly, I just thought it was just wonderful. I couldn’t believe somebody would offer me that kind of job or they’d actually track me down and want me. And I told Les and Judy, “I don’t think you really want me.” And they said, “No, that’s why we’re here. We do want you in.” It took a couple of years actually, for me to decide to do this. It was kind of frightening, because they had a large campaign. It was a big effort, and I told them I’m just figuring out what I’m doing at All Children’s. I don’t know about this.

I talk about this often, but I tell my kids a lot that it’s a great way to go for a job. I didn’t mean to do it, but they kept coming back offering me more. Ultimately, I did say yes. It was a great move for me. I actually signed up for five years, stayed for 10 years. We had a pretty massive campaign in the end. We had a billion-dollar campaign. We hit it and we exceeded it. A lot of people did that. It was a good run, and now I’m retired. I just kind of kick back and talk to you Joe. This is wonderful.

Life is good.

Life is good.

And there’s a lot of writing in there. There’s a lot of music in there. There are some shows in there. We’re going to get to that. And the campaign, the success of that. There are some interesting things to dig in there, but when you talk about making the transition from teaching into the hospital system. You originally went in SPR. Talk about how did the philanthropic side of you develop through that process? Did you always attach the meaning to the work or did you develop a deeper relationship with the meaning behind what you were doing as you transitioned into development?

That’s a great question, because I had no idea what development was. I mean, I knew it was fundraising, but as I think most people think, fundraising is just knocking on doors and asking for money. What I found when I started to work with … I was fortunate to be hired by Lloyd Horton who was the dean of development for not only this area, but nationally is just a standout in the foundation world. But I did have that background – as you said – in teaching. So, I knew the importance of working with kids and getting them focused. I found out that really helped my management skills, because everybody is 10 years old trying to get, you know, herding cats.

Then I had the marketing PR background in school. So, I was prepared for the PR side, but when I started learning what development really was, then realized that it was all about relationships. That actually asking people for money is the very last thing you do as a development person. That you are really a good development person, good meaning that you’re really invested in the organization, and you really want it to work. And you really believe in what they’re doing, which almost all of us do when you’re working in that field. Then it becomes less about the actual transactional dollar to dollar. It’s more about finding a fit for that donor. So that when you’re looking for donors, and especially wealthier donors who have large gifts to give, that there has to be a purpose. And there has to be a reason.

So, you have to be a good listener. You have to be fairly creative in fundraising which all were attractive to me. And you have to build your case. And the rest kind of follows. It may or it may not. You may get the gift. You may not get the gift, but it’s kind of the journey basically I think what you were saying. I think it follows in that … That’s what got me excited in learning about fundraising, and the right way to do fundraising. It’s a team sport, because there are so many people involved in it.

That partially answers one of the big questions I had, because I’ve seen in the things I’ve read where you’ll say it’s about building relationships. And you’ll say it’s also about customizing the donor experience, to some extent being adaptable. But I don’t think you’re the first person to think of that or to try that or even to do that. So, there has to be a little bit more than that. I see, one thing that sort of became clear when you were describing that is, I wonder if part of that is the balance between passion and transaction. Because some people come in with just straight passion. That can be a little bit overwhelming. Some people come in with straight transaction that can be a little bit underwhelming. As successful people who they kind of want that right mix of meaning and time efficiency, it would be fair to say that that’s maybe a part of your secret ingredient.

Oh sure. I don’t know if there’s anything secret about it. It just is something that I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I didn’t start out in fundraising, raising billions of dollars. It’s a learned thing. Some of it’s inherent. I think you have to really like people. You have to like what you’re doing. And you have to have that passion, but you’re absolutely right. I’ve hired fundraisers before that you want to teach that balance, because some have the passion, but they don’t have the practical side and the tactical side, if you will. And some are good technicians. They’ve read the books. And they know how to pull a campaign together. And how to ask for a gift, but they don’t really know how to build that relationship.

So, it’s hard to teach that. It’s hard to figure that out. I think it takes experience and time. It took me a lot of years to develop that. Ultimately, I think what it comes down to is, one thing that should be way upfront is listening. You have to be a good listener, because I think the mistake that a lot of folks in my business do is they go in right away. They have their decks, and they start talking. And they’re selling whatever the nonprofit is right off the bat.

They don’t leave time to listen to the donor about what they want, what they would like and where they are. I think it’s the same methodology for sales and a lot of other professions. It’s not new. I didn’t create that, but in fundraising, it’s a little more difficult in that you’re not selling something. Somebody is not getting back a widget for their dollars. They’re really investing in you, and investing in your institution.

I tell development officers that worked for me too. They are investing in you and us, because we represent the organization. So, whatever we’re saying – until they get really invested in the organization – we represent that. It’s very important that we present the organization the way that we should. And we’re all donors or we should be. It’s what would I want somebody to do. What would you want someone to do? You have to kind of keep that in mind. The mistake that a lot of people make too is they tap on a big donor and they say, “They’ve got a lot of money. So, they should give money to us.” No, they shouldn’t. They should do what they want to do. They made their money. They really make those decisions. It’s what do they want to do, and how can you talk about shared goals basically.

That’s the other thing. When you get to a level of transformational gifts, which I really found exciting more toward the middle and end of my career, when you look at the 20 million-dollar gifts, plus 10, 20 million that really are going to make a big change, then you’re really creating something for the institution and the donor. It takes a while, because you’re pulling together a lot of pieces and a lot of people. And seeing that grow is really exciting. It’s very rare that you go to a donor and they say, “I think I’d like to give you $10 million, and use it wherever you’d like.” It just doesn’t happen. So, those are other pieces.

Sure, and when you talk about transformational gifts, behind those are people with a capacity to do that. I’m thinking back, I read that when you grew up – you have a Jewish background. You had divided the environment you grew up into two categories. I think there was the Lakefront and was it Downtown?


Uptown, sorry.

Uptown, downtown.

And you associated it with the Uptown which were the more working class, than the Lakefront which were the whatever, the wealthier folks. And there had been [11:01] that your mother as well. Coming up with that vantage point on wealth, as you started to spend time with these really high net worth people, did you see them as – and specifically I would say their communication style or their value system – as a code to be deciphered or did you just roll straight in, person to person and just be you and see what happens? How conscious were you of that?

Well, it’s interesting you say that. I’ll back up a little bit when you talk about my background, because my dad was a working guy. My mom was working class. They were Eastern European. And in New Orleans – where I grew up – there was a division, more the Eastern European working, merchant Jewish families lived in the Uptown areas in the city in New Orleans. The Lakefront area seemed a bit well … I knew it was heavily populated by Jews who didn’t have the Eastern European background necessarily. Some had come from working classes, but most had inherited wealth or they had heavier assets. They were at a different level. There was that division. There was a little jealousy between the two.

You mentioned it, because it’s in my book – my second book Sammy which is about my dad. I bring it up a lot, because my mom always wanted to be a Lakefront Jew. She just wanted to be there. And growing up, I don’t know if I had a chip on my shoulder, but I was very aware of it, and not in a good way, a lot. I think I saw that group … we weren’t as infused in that group. I had friends, some who lived at the Lakefront. But I looked at them as kind of a different kind of people. I wasn’t as comfortable I guess in social circles, because we had a different lifestyle. Then you fast-forward because you always bring your heritage with you. Whether you want to or not, it’s there infused.

When I started working with wealthier people, even when I was a teacher. When I was a teacher at private schools, a lot of the parents would come and talk to me about their kids. That chip kind of wore off a little bit, but I was always feeling like I was the caretaker of that child. They were above me. I think it took a while for me to get comfortable. To sit down across the table with the CEO of a company or someone who was a multi-millionaire, and not feel intimidated or even feel a little bit like, “Huh, I wonder who they think they are.” It quickly changed when I started to work with families. Then had my own board. And was able to really be in more social circles with wealthier people, but I did figure out that they’re just like everybody else.

They have gotten their wealth a lot of different ways. Most of them work very hard. Some were lucky to get it, but most are just regular people. Then to try to find that commonality. There always is something. I’m fascinated when I sit down, just like you interview folks. I’m sure you are too, to realize that, “We’ve got a lot in common.” You wait for those things that you hear. I grew up that way. Maybe they played basketball in the schoolyard. And they had some goals of being an astronaut someday. Whatever it is, you realize that they’re not that different. The intimidation factor wore away a little bit. It still was a learned kind of thing. And something that I had to make a conscious effort to try to do.

It finally got to the point that I was not really intimidated by someone because of their stature or their wealth. And I was impressed with them for what they did and what they stood for. And realized that some of these are very generous people who share their resources with others who can’t. I got very close to them, and developed some really terrific friendships over the years. That’s a longwinded answer. Did that answer what you were saying?

No, it’s a great answer. It did, and I’m actually going to dig a little deeper. The way I classify that is inbound, neutral or outbound value-flow for lack of… Sort of a nerdy way to say it. As much as high net worth folks can be similar to others on a lot of details and life experiences and what not, the thing that differentiates them is that people often want something from them. On the other side of that is, doing the wanting or being wanted, and that’s the inbound versus outbound. I would say that when you get to that spot where the ideal is just to get neutral, where you can just enjoy them for those things, and take out that inbound-outbound factor from it. That’s a trust-building exercise for people who are used to people wanting something from them.

That’s a very good point that you make, because that’s one of the reasons that I say that the last thing you want to do is ask for money. When you meet someone or you develop a relationship, because of the trust factor. Because those folks are used to being asked for money, they’re waiting for it when you first meet them. The fact that I was a development officer going to call on these people, they knew what I was there for. It wasn’t like I was hiding anything. They were just waiting for it. So, I think it’s building that trust like you said and finding that before that even becomes part of the conversation.

Then the flipside of that is making that change in yourself to be neutral, right? So that you’re just showing up as just a neutral value prop. Sometimes I think you can actually even think that way even when you are actually talking about giving you money. Because it’s about, “Is this the logical thing to do?” That’s when it stops being, “Will you do me a favor?” and, “Will you choose mine over the other?” but, “Will you choose the best value? And that’s why you’re lucky enough that I’m giving that to you.”

Yes, and there’s an honesty factor. I’ve mentioned to a lot of people that I have talked people out of donations too. It’s not uncommon for someone to want to give you money to do a certain thing that you know the organization is not set up to do. It may be a great thing to do, but they may not have enough resources for it. And that would be a small piece. And that might not get done for years, or it’s totally against what the organization is set up to do. From a standpoint of being a good steward of those funds, you shouldn’t take the money and make promises that you can’t fulfill. In a lot of cases, I’d have those discussions with donors. They were tough for discussions saying, “I would love to take your money for that, but I know it’s not going to happen,” and they’d be shocked.

But, in a lot of ways they would be very impressed that it wouldn’t be one of those, “I’ll take your money no matter what.” And you could make promises to. They’ve been promised before on things. That’s another part of it. That’s another piece to fit.

I would imagine that doesn’t hurt your long-term viability either, right?

Absolutely right.

When you look back at that process, because it was an insignificant part of your upbringing. Going from a place where wealthy as sort of other, and even some negativity around that other, to a place where it’s just now, you’re mentally in the same tribe. If you could look back on that process, could you distill out any sort of thinking or advice that you would give to your younger self or give to other people going to that sort of process?

Wow, it’s hard because you can tell people to try not to think about that. Don’t have a chip on your shoulder. These are regular people, but my younger self would have been distrusting of that advice saying, “Oh sure.” Actually, for me now because now that I have a few dollars, I’m more in the other category. But I think about that. I wish I could have not had that little bit of a chip or not have that mindset. I don’t think you can change any of it, because so much of what you do, and what you become, and what you accomplish is because of the long term results. And you have to have that history and work through it.

I mean, I’m happy that I was able to. I know a lot of folks – and you probably too – that never got over that. They have that chip. And it’s prevented them from doing all kinds of things, because they never quite trusted anyone else. Especially, if it came to where they are in life. It prevents you from doing so much.

Or maybe it’s a good start to be aware that you may have those tendencies or have that in you. You need something to reflect on.

And I think all of us do. It just takes time to do that.

Well, I want to spend a little time on your writing.


Writing is, you draw, you’re involved with music, you have a couple of Emmys. So, let’s talk about creativity. How does producing things like that – obviously you got more time now to do that. But even looking back through your life, how have you used creativity yes, in your life?

To be corny, it really does feed your soul. I think, for me I needed that all the way through. Even when I was growing up in New Orleans I was an old piano player. And probably used to hang out in places I shouldn’t when I was growing up. In New Orleans, you can because you can go to a bar when you’re 12. You’d get with the wrong crowd, but I used to, I had bands when I was younger. I had gotten involved on the creativity part. Like you said, I was always writing. In college I had graphic design courses. So, I did a lot of artwork, and I loved that. I think, when I graduated, I realized that everything I loved, I could not afford to do. It was all the creative parts. And I so admire – by the way – people who have done that for a living and stuck with it. And have been able to succeed, even if it’s not financially succeed, but in their heart they’ve been able to succeed. And they stick with it.

I knew I always want to do it, I just thought from a standpoint of the quality of life, I was not going to be able to make a living. And I want to get married and have kids, which I did. Teaching unfortunately, was the same thing. And I’m such an advocate. To pay teachers a higher salary, we need them so badly. I loved teaching, all of the things that I loved to do. So, what I did basically was I continued to write music and play music. Continued to write. Started my first book, Home Movies. I say 10 years ago, it was probably 15 years ago. Novels are hard to write. I learnt that the hard way, especially when you have a full-time job.

I found myself writing, putting it away, coming back, re-reading and rewriting it. It was a labor of love, but it started to get to be a labor, labor and I wasn’t quite sure I was going to get through it. When I finally did get through Home Movies which is based on a teacher, so, you always use some of the non-fiction parts. And those were all personal. And a lot of what I write are my own experiences and people that I know. That book changed a number of different times, but in effect it’s the story of a young teacher who is a kindergarten teacher, a male kindergarten teacher which is very unusual. It was based on a character – a real guy I knew in Vienna who taught kindergarten.

He was a male kindergarten teacher. He used to go to the flea markets and buy these films, movies – Super 8mm movies from people’s estates. He’d bring them to the classroom. The classroom, he built a lot of the stuff in the classroom, all of these couches and VW van seats, and how-to books. I mean, all kinds of crazy stuff, but the movies became the centerpiece, because the kids would use them as story starters. They’d watch these movies. They had no sound. And it might be The World’s Fair 19-whatever or A Trip to Paris or whatever. The kids would start talking, but I mean it’s wonderful, because they would create all these great ideas from these movies.

One day, he brought in a box of films. And he found out they were his own movies, and that he’d been lost. Years before, his parents – as far as he knew – had passed away. They died in a boating accident when he was younger, but he started seeing – in these movies, his dad at an older age with a different family. That sends him on a journey to find his dad. And there’s a lot mixed in there. There’s murder and intrigue and fraud. He goes on that journey with his daughter who is older and this kind of reunites. It was a book that I just really loved writing. And when I finally did finish it years later, I published it just recently because it was something that had been sitting there.

And I found out that people really liked it, which made me feel good too. Because that’s the other thing you never know when you finish this. And it gave birth to a couple of other books that I had too, but that was the premise.

Your first book took nine years to write.

More like 15 years to write, yeah.

And the second one took two.

My second one took two years. I knew more what I was doing then. The second was Sammy which I mentioned was a coming of age for an 86 year-old, if that makes sense. He was a grumpy old guy who just never – in his bucket list he escaped his nursing home and he went back to New Orleans. Then the third was again about a teacher. It was a point in time actually when I was in Europe. And I picked that point, but it was more of a romance. I did that in about four months during a tough time in my life, because I had some medical issues. That was something that kind of kept me focused.

So, by that trajectory on you’ll be spinning them out in two weeks. And then 24 hours, and you’re going to have to slow down putting the novels out.

Right, I can still write like a page every three weeks. That’s about it. No, I’m a little better now. I’m a little better now in that.

I’m interested, and this is a nuanced and maybe weird observational question, but you’ve had incredible success in your professional life. You’ve also been able to work some creativity into it. There was the Children’s Miracle Network. You started that telethon and some of the stuff you wrote for it I think won two Emmys.

There was a recent article that was written about me that was not quite right. I wanted to correct it. The Children’s Miracle Network was a national telethon. It was started by the Osmond Foundation. We, All Children’s and me in particular were one of the founders of that early Children’s Miracle Network, and that we all met in Orem, Utah. We met with the Osmonds. It was just wonderful, because it was an opportunity to build a telethon where the money stayed locally. That was not a national group and redistributed. So, when we started that, I put a lot of elements into our local telethon. We had the Taste of Pinellas. I don’t know if you remember that, years ago.

We did it at Busch Gardens. We just had a big open air, just fun because when I wanted to do our version of the telethon, I figured people aren’t necessarily going to be sitting home for 24 hours. They want to be out and about. So, it was kind of that. We wrote music for the telethon, and a fellow who worked for me, really talented musician, Mike Sexton. I did a lot of the music for the telethon which span off on some other things that we did, health information for kids, unrelated to the telethon. Some of those interstatials that we did were put on Channel 8 and NBC and actually used in the telethon. Those are what won the Emmys. We were lucky. We had a lot of – again – it’s all partnerships and how you’re involved.

But the national telethon, I didn’t start. We were a major influencer of it. We got to a point where we raised about four or $5 million a year. It was a wonderful friend raiser and a fundraiser, but it helped on the creativity side. That was one of the neat things that happened.

So, maybe you could have made a living doing it.

I don’t know. I have no idea. Yes, if the $4 million came to me, but no it did. And I thought about it, because we found out later in life that people did like what we did. And that there was a market for it, but by then I was loving what I was doing. I have no regrets on that. Now at 72, I’m thinking, “Am I too old to make a little money on this?” but it’s still a lot of fun. I still do all the same things. We’re still writing music. We’re still playing music, and still writing books and stuff.

All the links to buy the books will make sure are in the show notes that accompany the podcasts. Along those lines, where I was going with my question is yes, it’s a totally different kind of putting yourself out there, right? So, on one hand I guess for lack of a better way to set the stage, you talk to a high net worth individual and say, “Give me $10 million,” and he does. You’ve established a relationship with him or her at that point. You say, “Oh, by the way. Here is a book I wrote.” There’s sort of a weird juxtaposition there between the two. I’m just curious if you could unpack if that makes you feel strange or is that a special kind of excitement, because you’re coming out from that direction, a special kind of risk? How does it make you feel?

It’s a good question, because I found that as a writer you’re putting yourself out there exactly to make a living out of the people who are really good at it really market themselves well. And they’re good at putting at themselves out there. The ironic part was I put myself out there for years. I would put a hospital out, the university out. I had no shame talking about – these are people, because I knew that they were great. And that it would be a wonderful investment. When it comes to selling myself, totally different. I love the creative part about it. Obviously, I’m not shy and I’m not standoffish on the marketing side, but I’m just not as good at it I think.

It takes a little practice, because I don’t… Sitting here, talking to you and doing an interview is great, but I don’t feel as comfortable saying, “I think these books are great.” I’m really feeling now to the point pretty comfortable saying, “Yes, they are really are good. I didn’t know if they would be, because I created them, but they are.” So, it’s taken me a while there, but to kind of hawk the books and promote the books, is not as much of a comfort level I guess, but I do have a lot of folks who have been asking me to do more, and go out and do some more things. It’s been a tough year. It’s just been really a tough year. So, a lot of stuff, I just haven’t had the energy to do a lot of things.

Now, I’m feeling like maybe I should. I wanted to put all my energy in writing. Maybe that’s how other – you’ve talked to a lot of writers, I know. I don’t know how most writers feel. I feel like the energy I want to put in is the creative part. I don’t really want to market myself and do all that, but I know they’re not going to sell themselves. These books can be great, but nobody could read them for years. So, it’s going to take some of that as well. I haven’t found a link, to find an agent and a publisher. So, that’s the other part of it. That’s a little difficult.

It’s tough. I mean there is no magic answer for that. Luckily, you get what most writers would aspire to, which is just the freedom to focus and to do it. Then it’s just a matter of, the drive to want your stuff to be read, more than to make the money will put you at a natural pace to put it out there.

Fortunately, I don’t have to do this to make a living now. You’re right. So, that does put me at an advantage.

You mentioned that you had the health issue last year. I think for as best as I can tell, you have a lot of joy in your life. You’ve had a well-rounded life, you’ve had a lot of creativity. You’ve had a lot of professional success, thriving family, but any time you’re faced with an existential threat, on top of that, the pandemic, did that shake anything noteworthy loose in you or did it just reaffirm that you’re doing all right?

Yes, it did both, I think. I’ve had a series of medical issues that actually happened after I was 60. I don’t know if that’s the magic number or not, but I had a number of surgeries and things that happened. None were life-threatening until the past year when I had neurosurgery for a benign tumor. I had a lot of sinus surgeries. I had a hip replacement, things that happen when you’re older, but it seemed like back to back which kind of encouraged me to retire. I thought, “Now is the time. I don’t want to die at my desk” when I was working, but this past year they did an abdominal screening for my stomach. And unfortunately, it came up that I had a tumor on my liver.

They didn’t know what it was at first. They thought it was some kind of sarcoma. And when they did diagnose it, it was a melanoma – believe it or not – on my liver. It was such a weird thing, because it’s such a small percentage of people who get that, because they did not find any primary source. Typically, in a melanoma, you’d find it on your skin and I’d never had that. So, it’s a secondary melanoma, but it was a grade four. It was a bad one. Did surgery, they took out about 40% of my liver. And they took out my gall bladder. And they took out this pretty large tumor, which they sent me pictures of, which was fun to show the family.

Christmas card.

Yeah. It was heavy duty. It was in March, and right around that time is all the pandemic stuff. It was pretty scary because – and nobody could come to the hospital. I was there alone. In fact, it was the time that they were cancelling a lot of surgeries in hospitals. But this was one that they fortunately did not. But my wife couldn’t come to the hospital. It was very tough on her. And by the way, I have a wonderful wife and three beautiful kids who are married. And they have kids. They are my support, and keep me going. They really are wonderful. But it was a long stint in the hospital to recover. They fortunately got everything. When they got the tumor, it didn’t go into the lymph nodes or the bile ducts. It was self-contained, but melanoma’s pretty bad. It can come back easily.

So, I was put into a treatment of immunotherapy at Moffit once a month to prevent recurrence. It’s been a year’s worth of immunotherapies. Immunotherapy is not as heavy duty as chemotherapy, but you do have side effects. You do feel icky and stuff. It takes a while, but that’s what I was saying, during that time I wanted to stay focused, because when you have cancer, and you’re a cancer survivor. And you probably can talk to any cancer survivor about this, it’s on your mind all the time. It’s like they took it out, but is it going to come back? Then you’re physically wiped out, and you’re mentally wiped out by it. Then Covid was there. So, we couldn’t do anything anyway.

I guess, it was a blessing in disguise. It’s not like I was missing anything. My first year of retirement, we had all these plans to travel and to do a lot of stuff. Then that just didn’t happen, but it also put things in perspective. The second part of your question I think is that I just am so blessed. My life has been so wonderful. I realize each day is a blessing and to take advantage of it. And how important it is to do what you love, what you want. To be around the people that you love. It was a real positive light in the middle of a pretty dark time. The writing I think really saved me, because it could be on your mind a lot. You can only watch so much TV, and walk around the house.

Everybody went through that with Covid, and it still is. Then on top of that, to think about your cancer would just be devastating. And I had my family around me. I have so many things to be grateful for, and it re-emphasized the fact that man, have I been lucky. I’m lucky now, because there’s no trace of the cancer. I do scans every three months. They check to see if there’s any recurrence. I’m coming up on a year. April will be my last immunotherapy. It’s only a month and I get to ring the bell. Then I go for scans after that, but feeling good. So, it’s all positive.

The net result was more, it amped up your appreciation and gratitude, more than it created any sense of urgency to do anything or to change anything.

No, and my wife and I had talked about it. We have our bucket list where we want to travel different places. I said I’ve been lucky I traveled a lot. My wife worked for Delta Airlines for years. So, when we got married we had those free travel things. That’s why we got married, because she said, “Marry me, fly for free.”

Yes, I’d give a dowry.

But we did a lot of trips, and we’ve had a lot of experiences. It’s not like I have this burning desire that I have to do something before I die. But there is a lot of stuff that I want to do. I mean I feel like renewed energy to try stuff that maybe I wouldn’t have before. My mind is clear and not cluttered with work-related stuff.

Wonderful, enjoyed the conversation. We finish our shows with a shout out. If there’s someone in the community, and I’m sure your list is long. But if someone jumps into your mind as maybe someone who’s a little bit under the radar who doesn’t get the normal love that they should that we can throw a little attention at. Who comes to mind?

There are so many people that I am grateful for in my career. If I say one name, I’m going to miss 1,000 other ones. But I will tell you, when we talk about success – when we talk about billion-dollar campaigns, that’s a whole heck of a lot of people who work really hard. My kids – like I said before – are just wonderful, Josh, Alissa and Nickie. I’ll shout them out, because they’re all doing wonderful things right now, to then the grandkids who are so much. Honestly, having grandkids are great. And my wife Debbie, I owe so much to you. She’s been there and just a rock. The donors, I mean I’ve got miles of lists that I could tell you, that they’re wonderful. There are big donors and there are little donors. They’re all equally important.

Thank you.

Thank you.


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About the host

Joe Hamilton is publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, co-founder of The St. Petersburg Group, a partner at SeedFunders, fund director at the Catalyst Fund and host of St. Pete X.

About the St.Petersburg Group

The St. Petersburg Group brings together some of the finest thinkers in the area. Our team is civic minded, with strong business acumen. We seek to solve big problems for big benefit to the city, its businesses and its citizens.