Every gift to the McPherson Eye Research Institute helps to advance vision research, and many gifts come with a story worth sharing. When Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic School in Monona was looking for a new recipient of funds from its “Penny War” fundraiser, Principal Callie Meiller thought of her longtime friend, John Walsh. Walsh – a business attorney with Axley in Madison (and a talented stand-up comic, who took first place out of 116 comics at the Comedy Club on State’s annual Madison’s Funniest Comic Competition this year) – is legally blind from an inherited disease called Usher syndrome, which also affects hearing. (His older brother, Mike, has the same condition, although his vision loss is not quite as advanced as John’s). Callie thought that John, a friend since they were in the same class at Edgewood High School (they went to homecoming together as sophomores), would enjoy talking to the kids and could propose a vision-related recipient for the Penny War funds. She asked him to speak to an assembly of the school’s approximately 140 students, 3 year-olds through 8th graders.
John Walsh, whose family has long supported vision research and the McPherson Eye Research Institute, not only agreed to speak to the school; he offered to match the funds that the children raised for the Institute. In his talk to the “kiddos,” as John calls them, he told them where the Penny Wars money was going, and how it helps people like him. It was different from his occasional talks to older audiences – “there was less description of genetics and research, and more about the concept of relying on friends and family for help, and treating people with respect.” The questions were wide-ranging, although John – the stand-up comic peeking through – noted that they were “mainly about how often I hit my head on stuff.” Callie Meiller recalls other questions, about whether John could drive – what he can actually see – and why canes are white and red.
Over the following two weeks, the students collected $367.89, almost entirely in pennies, in a bucket in the school’s office. The collection, which has been donated to the Institute and matched by John’s gift, helps the students understand that (as Meiller puts it) “service projects are a normal thing for our school – part of our faith is wanting to serve others.” It’s a good lesson in friendship, too, and we’re grateful to be part of this story.