Former Philadelphia Eagles general manager Jimmy Murray had just presented a pediatric oncologist named Audrey Evans with a check for $125,000 to kickstart improvements at the old Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Then at 18th and Bainbridge, the place was falling apart; and an Eagles organization that formed after a teammate’s child was diagnosed with leukemia was helping to cover the costs.
And after Evans accepted that check in 1974, she said five words that Murray, now 77, will never forget: “You know what else we need?”
That need was a refuge, a place where families could stay while their children are in the hospital being treated for cancer — where parents could support each other emotionally through the turmoil of a child with a deadly disease.
Murray and the Eagles were on board, but they needed to find a way to pay for it. So he worked it out with a buddy at a local advertising agency that proceeds from McDonalds’ next promotion — the Shamrock Shake near St. Patrick’s Day, which had been created just a few years prior — would go toward the establishment of the first Ronald McDonald House later built in West Philly near 40th and Spruce streets.
“It’s changed my life forever,” Murray, who lives in the Philly ‘burbs and is still involved with the Ronald McDonald House today, said. “You can’t underestimate the power of people’s goodness.”
This is the story of how a minty green milkshake that started out flavored as an unpopular lemon-lime drink became the basis for one of the most recognized charities in America.
It began with a selfless act
Former Eagles owner Leonard Tose was a charitable guy. The owner of a multi-million dollar trucking business, Tose bought the Eagles in 1969 (he later sold them off to cover millions in gambling debts) and, while there, raised millions to fight leukemia and gave thousands to help fund local high school sports programs.
During his tenure, Eagles tight end Fred Hill had a daughter named Kim. In 1969, after Kim turned 5, she was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia. Doctors told her parents she likely had just six months to live. In those days, pediatric leukemia oftentimes meant imminent death.
So Fred and his wife Fran spent the better part of the next three years driving back and forth from South Jersey, where they lived, to St. Christopher’s in North Philly for her treatment. She was exceeding the six-month prognosis doctor’s had given her years before.
That’s when the Eagles got involved. Hill and his neighbor Stan Lane, with the support of Tose, started a group called Eagles Fly for Leukemia with the goal of using their considerable platform in the region to raise funds to help families who didn’t have enough money to pay for their children’s treatment. The Eagles held a fundraising dinner, but Tose wanted his GM at the time — Jimmy Murray — to do more. He told him to go up to St. Christopher’s and ask doctors treating Kim exactly what they needed to improve their facilities and help families.
Murray went to the hospital and found a small side room, not even the size of a normal chapel in a hospital. He prayed to God: “Please don’t let me say the wrong thing.”
Dr. Lawrence Namain met with Murray and, when the Eagles GM asked the cancer doctor what he needed to do his job more effectively, the physician told him: “Look at this place. It’s 100 years old. We need everything.” He paused for a moment. “But there’s somebody with a greater need.”
A doctor’s vision
Murray was a rowhome Philly guy, through and through. Grew up in West Philly, had friends in every which way, used his charm and his deep Irish Catholic roots to talk to almost anyone.
It didn’t really work with the oncologist who Namain referred him to: Dr. Audrey Evans at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Evans was matter-of-fact. She didn’t care about the Eagles, didn’t even own a television to watch them. When Murray suggested they meet at the Spectrum for a check presentation, she had no idea where he was talking about. Her life was dedicated to the kids she cared for. So Murray told Evans that his boss, Leonard Tose, was a practical type of guy. They should meet with him, Murray told her, and get right to the point about what the hospital needed financially to better treat children.
Evans asked Tose for $50,000 to fund two new rooms. When Tose said, “how much for a whole floor?” Evans didn’t hesitate. It would be a million dollars.
“Then we’ll put in a million dollars,” Tose told her. “And Jimmy will raise it.”
After a series of dinners and phone drives, Murray and the Eagles had raised $125,000; that was the first check toward what CHOP would receive to upgrade its facilities. Evans was happy — but that’s when she told Murray about her real vision.
“You know what happens when I tell a family their child has this disease? They don’t hear anything else after,” Murray recalls her saying. “What I would like to get is a YMCA… a place where the families could lean on each other emotionally and have a place to stay while the child is in the hospital.”
Murray responded: “Look, I’m from Philly. We were poorer than poor. Everybody took care of everybody. Not only did America start here, we’re all neighborhood people. What you need is a house.”
“OK, fine,” she said. “Help get us a house.”
The Shamrock Shake wasn’t really a thing in 1974. It had been invented in 1970 as a green drink made with lemon-lime sherbet, but hadn’t done big sales. Still, when Murray called his buddy Don Tuckerman at a local ad agency that worked with McDonald’s, the Shamrock Shake was the next upcoming promotion.
And it was perfect. Green shake. Green money. Green Eagles. Murray asked that 25 cents per shake go to help fund Evans’ vision for a home for families. But that ask had to go through the higher-ups.
Regional manager of McDonalds Ed Rensi called Murray about the 25-cent-per-shake going rate. Murray wondered if maybe he’d asked for too much. Rensi said to him over the phone: “If we just give you all the money, can we call it the Ronald McDonald House?” Murray said that if they gave all the proceeds over, McDonalds could name it the Hamburgler House for all he cared.
The milkshake was changed to just a vanilla milkshake with green food coloring (it wasn’t made minty until 1983) and regional sales went well. Just a few months later, Murray and the Eagles were able to buy an old, seven-bedroom fraternity house near 40th and Spruce Streets that they fixed up. And on Oct. 15, 1974, with Mayor Frank Rizzo by their side, the first Ronald McDonald House was dedicated.
Today, there are more than 350 houses serving 60 countries. Ronald McDonald House Charities helps more than five million families a year. And Murray calls it “a McMiracle.”
For the last three years, he’s been working on a book with that title — telling the story of how a football team and a green milkshake were the basis for a charity that helps millions of families struggling with kids who have debilitating diseases. Evans is still in Philly and, according to records, lives in an apartment on Rittenhouse Square.
Kim Hill died in 2011 at age 44. She lived four decades longer than doctors said she would.
“When people get together with the same problem,” Murray said, “they can bring great joy.”