Pat Summitt Foundation director: We 'do things the way Pat did'

Dan Fleser

For Patrick Wade, June 28, 2016, unfolded as one of the longest days of his life.

Dr. Roberto Fernandez, left, his wife Dr. Denia Ramirez, and Summitt Foundation director Patrick Wade talk with James Haslam II, right, following the announcement of Fernandez being the medical director for the Pat Summitt Alzheimer's Clinic at The University of Tennessee Medical Center last September.

He was awakened before dawn with the news that Pat Summitt, the Tennessee women’s basketball coaching legend, had died after a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. As director of Summitt’s foundation, Wade’s work didn’t end until around 10 p.m.

Then he made a long day even longer, opting to visit the Pat Summitt Plaza, across from Thompson-Boling Arena. The centerpiece is a bronze statue of Summitt.

“I made a point to just go sit over there, just for my own kind of personal therapeutic thing,” said Wade, who was stunned by the number of people there at that late hour. “I sat there for a good hour for that very reason. I thought ‘This day will never happen again.’ ” I needed that. I was so glad I did.”

His work during the ensuing year has yielded a similar satisfaction. The Pat Summitt Clinic at the University of Tennessee Medical Center opened in December. The facility is led by Dr. Roberto Fernandez, a leading expert on Alzheimer’s disease and someone Wade considers a perfect fit for the clinic’s mission.

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Furthermore, Summitt’s private funeral and the public Celebration of Life service brought together former Lady Vols as well as other associates and friends of Summitt. The gatherings have spawned an ongoing dialogue about how they might stay connected in serving the foundation’s purpose.

“I think we’ve been fortunate that we’ve had this work to pour ourselves into, in terms of how you deal with this,” Wade said. “She (would’ve) wanted us to get to work and not feel sorry for her or ourselves. That’s been therapeutic and it motivates us.

“We have to do things the way Pat did them. There’s no shortcuts. You’ve got to do the right thing.”

Fundraising rising

In the first three months after Summitt’s death, Wade estimated that the foundation’s fund-raising approached $700,000. The figure typically represents a year’s worth of donations, Wade said. Approximately $250,000 alone was raised by the sale of commemorative T-shirts.

Wade said estate gifts, which usually involve a donor’s will, also have risen sharply. They will yield funds in the years to come.

“It’s their way of memorializing her,” he said.

The clinic’s opening has created, Wade said, “a vision for what the foundation is about” and offers something tangible to continue the memory of Summitt.

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“It’s so much more difficult when you don’t have anything to show,” he said. “It’s truly: if you build it, they will come.”

Former UT basketball player Nikki Caldwell Fargas, now the coach at LSU, toured the facility in April with former UT assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, who’s a member of Caldwell’s staff. Caldwell was impressed and thought Summitt would be as well.

“Pat would feel so comfortable that (patients) are being taken care of, it’s very hands on,” Fargas said. “Pat was a very hands-on coach.”

The same philosophy underscores a monthly teleconference that’s been convened to further the foundation’s work. The call includes former Lady Vols sports information director Debby Jennings, former Lady Vols athletic director Joan Cronan, Summitt biographer Sally Jenkins, ESPN vice president Carol Stiff and former Lady Vols point guard Pam Marr, among other former players. Wade said the conference call came about “organically” from last summer’s gatherings with the intent to address the pressing question: How can I help? 

More:Pat Summitt timeline

“I think we’ve been able to help the foundation think through opportunities to help them tell the story,” Marr said.

Wade plots the foundation’s future from an 11th-floor office in downtown Knoxville. The location fittingly offers an expansive panorama. On a sunny morning earlier this month, the view was heavenly.

“You would think Pat would be happy,” Wade said. “This is what she set out to do.”