Photograph by Amie Vanderford
Damien and Jim Kovarik
I like to think I make the choices in my life. With my wife, Paula, I have raised two boys in the schools and streets of Memphis. I would like to think I am a Memphian by choice. In reality, Memphis chose me.
In 1981, I was a poor and happy farmer in the rolling hills of southern Illinois. I lived in Cobden, Illinois (population 1,100), and farmed tomatoes. My annual income was less than $12,000 a year and my only vehicle was a one-ton Chevy flatbed that was necessary to haul tons of tomatoes to market and loads of gravel to keep the road open.
I was quite happy in these conditions. Life on the farm was rich with friends and food and, I thought, my future. But most of us do not get to choose our futures, much as we think we do. At most, we react to forces large and small that mince our best-laid plans. In my case, our rural life in Illinois turned urban in a single evening.
A perceptive young intern ordered a blood test for my 3-year-old son Damien at a routine pre-school physical. He was diagnosed with ALL (acute lymphocytic leukemia). Knowing that disease’s reputation, he called St. Jude for advice. The answer was clear as he came back to the room: St. Jude wants you.
In 1981, the cure rate for ALL stood at even odds; survival was a 50/50 shot. St. Jude did better. They led the world in understanding and treating the very disease that my son carried to them that evening. He was an ideal candidate in their research pool: a child of 3 years, male, with an early diagnosis.
And so we heeded the summons to Memphis. Mom rode with son in an ambulance. I did not own a vehicle that would make it 200 miles, so I borrowed the neighbor’s car and followed.
At the end of that night, I crossed the river and walked into my first building in Memphis: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Scary news and a scary ride left me standing in a hospital lobby and wondering where I’d landed. With the greatest of luck, I had landed in an institution that sets a world standard for care. And I felt it, even that first night. I felt it for the next two and a half years of my son’s therapy.
This was an unusual hospital experience. Doctors and nurses took time to explain the science. Everyone came to know Damien and our story. We were penniless, but all care was free. We were clueless, and they guided us to our lodging.
From the 17th floor of the old Holiday Inn at Madison and Pauline, we looked out over this new place. From the air, most of Memphis looks like a forest. On the ground, we came upon Midtown and warmed to the idea of this place. We just drove in circles those first few weeks. Parks and zoos and art and food felt like a holiday at first. Such surprises as the beauty of the Parkway system and the nearness of downtown made this city seem human and accessible. Memphis the place had hit the same nerve that the hospital had hit.
Paula and I decided to move here for the duration of Damien’s treatment. We rented out our farmhouse because we were sure that we would return. That was 30 years ago.
This city has been a wonderful place to call home. Luck guided our landing. We moved to a funky-cheap neighborhood called Cooper-Young. Like much of what we have since discovered about Memphis, funky-cheap was the place where rural met urban. It sure worked for us.
We discovered old homes and good neighbors. We discovered good bones in a space built for people, not cars. Over the 27 years we lived in Cooper-Young, we witnessed the transformation of a once-raggedy neighborhood into an arty community. Our family grew up and out. Miles, my second boy, is a native Memphian (with a Chicago accent). Both boys are alumni of Peabody Elementary.
Like St. Jude those first few weeks, Memphis has always seemed human and hopeful. This is not your usual big city. This is not Chicago or Detroit, the cities of my youth. I raised two children in Midtown Memphis — something I would not do in those cities.
My family has flourished here. I now have nieces, nephews, and in-laws in Binghampton. I could populate a small town with all the wonderful friends I have made in Cooper-Young. My older son is today 33 years old, and still enjoying the benefits of St. Jude. As if to complete a grand circle, Damien now works there in the ALSAC division, in E-Marketing. He also lives with his wife and two sons in Cooper-Young. His oldest, Derin, is in kindergarten, yes, at Peabody Elementary School.
Today I suppose I can say I am a Memphian by choice. I’d still like to think I make the choices in my life, but I know better. St. Jude has saved my son, and set me on a path in this place to be a good father, a full citizen, and a happy camper. After 30 years in Memphis, I see that people, places, and the swings of fate set the stage. My choice is simply to keep the balls in the air.
A former writing instructor at the University of Memphis and a longtime community organizer, Jim Kovarik is now a grant manager for the City of Memphis. His son was the subject of a cover story (“Damien’s Triumph” by Judy Ringel) in the January 1988 issue of Memphis magazine. Read it here.