Fifteen-year-old John Zimmerman gained national prominence shortly before his death in 1985 when President Reagan named him an honorary Marine and granted his dying wish: to be buried at the Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific near Honolulu--the second civilian in U.S. history to be buried in a military cemetery.
More than 350 guests turned out Saturday night to honor the memory of the Fountain Valley youth and his lifelong battle with muscular dystrophy at the third annual "John Zimmerman Memorial Dinner Auction."
The fund-raiser, sponsored by the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. of Orange County at the Anaheim Hilton, raised an estimated $45,000, according to Gere Gastineau, the MDA's district director.
In a room set up for a silent auction, Marines in crisp blue uniforms mingled with guests and John's parents, Richard and Sandy Zimmerman, who spoke of their continuing involvement with the MDA.
"We want to give something back to the association because they've done so much for us over the years," said Richard Zimmerman, a member of the executive committee of the association's Orange County chapter.
"A couple of days before John passed on, when he couldn't speak because he'd had a tracheostomy, he wrote me a note. It said: 'Dad, keep working with MDA.' If he could see this tonight, I know he'd be real proud of everything that's happened in his name."
Sandy Zimmerman added, "Here I was, just about to say I'm fine, and I'm choking on the words. We're in the healing stage now--it's not a day-to-day struggle. But tonight really stirs up the emotions."
Cool as a cucumber and pretty in pink was Julie Jones, 13, recipient of the John Zimmerman Memorial Award. Julie, who attended the event with her parents, Connie and Garry, her sister Jennifer and best friend Dawn Blodgett, has been wheelchair-bound since she was 2. She has survived two spinal fusion operations since 1980. But she remains undaunted.
"I'm basically a party animal," explained Julie, who has served as poster child for the Orange County chapter of MDA. As she discussed plans for her birthday party "in 17 days," Julie toyed with an index card on which she had written an acceptance speech.
After guests dined on Caesar salad, filet mignon, chicken breast and strawberry mousse with raspberry sauce and chocolate, Sandy Zimmerman dedicated this year's award to Julie--and suddenly it was time to deliver that speech.
But Julie passed the index card to her father as he stepped up to the podium.
"My parents want my speech to be at least two minutes long," Garry Jones began, speaking for Julie. "So I thought I'd talk for 30 seconds and let you stare at me for the minute and a half left. . . ." Julie smiled shyly as her father delivered her joke.
Also honored was Dr. Brian Ewald, founding physician of the Orange County MDA clinic, established at Childrens Hospital of Orange County 18 years ago. His voice thick with emotion, Ewald called the award "probably one of the major accolades of my life" and promised to continue to work to provide "what these children--and children like them in the future--need and what they deserve."
One of the evening's special guests was Marine Sgt. Joseph Duaime, who had flown in from New Jersey for the event and planned to spend the night at the Zimmerman house before returning home. Duaime met the Zimmerman family two years ago when he presented a Marine Corps League medallion to Dennis Crystal, one of John's friends.
"You know, the saying is, 'A Marine never cries,' " said Duaime. "But I'll tell you, when I saw Dennis two years ago, I cried. You see little children in wheelchairs and you look at your own legs and say, 'What am I complaining about? What in the world have I got to complain about?' "
The evening concluded with a live auction that included a fur coat that sold for $1,750 and a $2,750 week at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki.
Chairing the event were Glenn Leibowitz, John Weeks and Richard Zimmerman. Committee members included Jim Angus, Elizabeth Arvidson, Chuck Benner, Robert Engen, Rozann Logan, Paula Neisen, Jeffrey Pierce and Sandy Zimmerman.