By Lisa Morgan
Somewhere, working into the wee hours of the morning, a former Boy Scout and scratch golfer is returning emails, making contact with bighearted celebrities, and organizing the next meeting of his stellar event team, while tackling one detail after another to carry out a labor of love – a passion that was rooted deeply as he earned his place as an Eagle Scout decades prior. The impact of his time spent volunteering at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at age 14 rings clearly when he speaks of it. His Tennessee born Southern drawl grows deeper, his enthusiasm contagious, while his compelling devotion for the institute that serves children stricken with cancer rivals that of a Southern Baptist Preacher. For Chairman Clarke Rheney, as well as founders Patrick and Cathy Warburton and the seventeen working board members of the Patrick Warburton Celebrity Golf Tournament for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, pouring themselves into this incredible fundraising golf and music event is a “no brainer.”
Now in its seventh year, rain maker, Clarke Rheney, will once again put in over 1100 hours preparing to make the annual tournament and surrounding events more successful than ever. The goal: Raise enough money to pay for one day of St. Jude’s research and patient care. That number is an estimated 2.1 million dollars, and based on their current trajectory, the tournament is on track to soon reach that goal, and then some. Retired from a grueling but extremely successful computer programming career, Rheney, along with his team of professionals, have purposely crafted something that has evolved into more than a popular golf event, but an emotional, unforgettable, life altering experience for those participating.
2017 marks Rheney’s 20th year here in the desert. He has served as Celebrity Chairman of the Bob Hope Classic and most recently, as part of the Executive Committee in charge of music and amateur golf for the PGA TOUR’s CareerBuilder Challenge. He shares freely about his inspiration for this music and golf event that supports the world renowned pediatric treatment and research facility that focuses on children’s catastrophic diseases: “The first time I walked the halls of St. Jude Children’s Hospital, I saw people my own age from all over the world, sick and probably dying, but they were happy. They just had this, ‘I’m sick, but I’m going to beat this,’ attitude. While it’s a bad place to be, it is a place that resonates with positivity. If you walk through the hospital, you’ll see an adult (doctor, nurse, or counselor) playing with a child, you’ll notice they are always speaking positively to them. You hear the kids saying things like, ‘When I get out of here, I want to be a doctor,’ or ‘I want to be an athlete.’ Being exposed to that at 14 years old leaves a mark. Then, when you become an adult looking to give back, well…it’s a no brainer from my stand point.”
In 2010, Patrick Warburton and his wife Cathy made their first visit to St. Jude to tour the facility and meet some of the patient families, Patrick reading to the kids, and Cathy painting a mural on one of the walls at the hospital. The inspiration gained from the patients they met and the impressive strides that have been made on pediatric cancer survival rates due to St. Jude research, made them eager to partner with Clarke to create the Patrick Warburton Celebrity Golf Tournament for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in March 2011. In only its fifth year, St. Jude named the Warburton, “Committee of the Year.” In 2016, they named Clarke Rehney, “Volunteer of the Year,” and for good reason. Over the few years the tournament has taken place, they have managed to raise over 5 million dollars for the facility that dedicates .81 cents of every dollar directly to patient care.
Rheney’s golf game has made him an ideal teammate on the golf course, but it’s his genuinely warm, personable demeanor along with his ability to engage and respect the privacy of the celebrities that he’s socialized or golfed with that have made him an ideal networker and organizer for this and all the other events he’s been involved with. “I don’t mind talking to people,” shared Rheney. “I’ve demonstrated that I can be trusted not to run to TMZ. There were also a lot of bar tabs,” he chuckles.
“This celebrity golf tournament is special. For example, during one of the events surrounding the Warburton three years ago, actor Kurt Fuller, (Wayne’s World, Anger Management, Midnight in Paris) introduced himself to some friends and I at our table. The next day on the driving range, he greeted us all by name. I shook his hand afterward and said, ‘Thank you. You get it.’ After you leave a tournament, having played with someone like that, you have a good feeling, and I think that’s why everybody loves playing it. I’ve been to a lot of parties, events and shows in Hollywood, and played a lot of golf with these folks. I have a pretty good sense of who’s full of it and who is really genuine. These participants might be ‘A’ or ‘B’ list celebrities, but they’re going to take the time to get to know you, maybe even know your kids’ names. Once you get that, then it’s all about St. Jude. It’s hard for these guys and ladies to say no to St. Jude. I’ve seen them tear up and say, ‘I want to go sing or read at that hospital,’ and we make that happen. It’s easy. You can’t fake it. It’s about being genuine.”
“We start with the Songwriter’s Dinner, Wednesday night at Castelli’s (an event that now has a wait list). Then there’s Thursday’s Songwriter Night, The Story Behind the Story, and Friday night’s Rheney Palooza Jam featuring rock and roll icons and surprise guests. We get them on the golf course Saturday. By then we’ve been playing and having a good time and then that night at the Soiree, it is all about the hospital. We’ll bring up families of the patients – Miss Mary, a grandmother who is a preacher with a Southern drawl will speak, and when she speaks, people listen. She’s going to get up there, reach down and grab your gut. It will evolve from a fun, good time into quite an emotional event.”
“Here’s the thing about St. Jude,” Rheney continued. “If you have a kid and you go to your pediatrician who tells you that your child has Neuroblastoma (for example) and that there’s nothing they can do for you, St. Jude will get you on a plane to their hospital within four hours. And, by the way, you’re not paying for anything. You’ll have lodging, and gift cards for the grocery store. There are certain cancers that are rare in children that only occur in about ten cases a year. Some of the drug routines for treating those cancers cost 300k. There are just not enough occurrences for those drugs to make it profitable for pharmacology companies to produce them, so St. Jude makes them. Their research to find cures for childhood cancer is even leading to potential cures for other diseases such as ALS. With 81 cents of each dollar donated going to straight to patient care, it’s pretty remarkable.”
Not every golf tournament is combined with such a fantastic line up of music. Rheney, having lived in Nashville for much of his adult life after college, approached, his fraternity brother, Andy Kerr, with his idea for a songwriter’s night and a rock and roll jam. “I called up Andy and said, ‘I need a house band.’ He said, ‘I got them.’ They’re called Six Wire; some of Nashville’s top musicians including lead singer Andy Childs.” Kerr, Childs and Rheney make a dynamic and effective trio, relying on each other’s strengths to produce an incredible signature music experience for the four day event. “Andy Kerr is the detail guy, Andy Childs is the music director, and I bring in celebrities. There’s a certain degree of artistry that goes into the production of something like this. This is one of the few charity events where the production crew has been inspired to give back to the charity (to the tune of 10k). Do good, good things happen,” says Rheney.
When asked about being awarded “Best Committee of the Year” by St. Jude in 2015, followed by Rheney being named “Volunteer of the Year” in 2016, Rheney says, “We are a working board. Each member will spend over 400 hours toward this event while working and taking care of their own families. For them to get recognized, that was pretty special. The Warburton has become St. Jude Hospital’s number one event, raising over 5.1 million dollars without any corporate sponsorship. 45 years after making Eagle Scout, being named ‘Volunteer of the Year,’ personally meant the world to me. I threw out my acceptance speech and spoke from the heart that day…it was a top 5 life experience for me.”
“We can fight like brothers and sisters,” shared Rheney of him and his board members. “But here’s the deal – a lot of charity boards are made up of people with the same temperaments, talents and convictions… in other words, they’re pretty likely to agree with each other. I like to think we have 17 people who are very different in the talents that they bring. It’s my job to get the most out of them and give them the opportunity to succeed so that, ultimately, St. Jude benefits. It’s a charity, but when it comes down to it, you’re running a business – you’re in the business of raising money. We’ve found a formula that works and we’ll keep going with it.”
“We work hard and we play hard,” he adds. “These people sacrifice a lot of personal and family time, so occasionally we go to Neil’s or Castelli’s (that’s my personal Cheers) and cut loose a little,” he says with a smile. “We bond. We truly are a family.”
By year 10, this family of charity board members hopes to pay for one full day at the hospital over the course of one weekend. For more information on the tournament and its surrounding events, and how you can get involved, visit patrickwarburtongolf.com