The ALS Association

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Lawrence Barnett

In August 1978, a close friend called Lawrence Barnett to tell him the friend’s wife had been diagnosed with ALS. “I asked him, ‘what’s that?’” Barnett recalled. “That was my first contact with the disease. I didn’t know what ALS was.” Barnett devoted time, talent, energy and generous financial support to help find a cure before his death on June 11, 2012.

Barnett wasn't alone in his scant knowledge of the disease he was introduced to that day - few Americans were familiar with it. The friend asked Barnett, an experienced fundraiser, to help increase public awareness of ALS and support for research.

Lawrence and Isabel Barnett

He agreed. By 1981, Barnett had been elected chairman of the ALS Society of America (ALSOA) and devoted much of his time to ALS causes. His dedication to ALS issues was well-known when Barnett was elected the first chairman of The ALS Association (ALSA) born of the merger of ALSOA and the National ALS Foundation.

The merger of the two groups helped to focus and solidify the goals of the ALS community. "There's so much more strength in unity," said Barnett, who served as The ALS Association chairman for four years, "we can do so much more working as one." He continued to serve on The Association's Board of Trustees as well as its Research, Nominating and Development committees.

"I guess I'm like the grandfather of The Association," he said with a laugh. "I'm very proud of the distinction."

Barnett, who started fundraising by soliciting contributions for his children's elementary school, understood the day he joined the fight against ALS that awareness and the money that would need to follow would be the key to unearthing the cause of Lou Gehrig's Disease.

"There's more and more awareness of the disease with each day," he said. "Years ago, many doctors, including neurologists, weren't familiar enough to diagnose the disease. Now, that's less of an issue. Many more people in the country now know about Lou Gehrig's Disease."

It became a personal mission for Barnett to "stamp out ALS," he said. Barnett personally underwrote numerous Association research grants. "I've always felt like I needed to give back to society, help humanity as much as I can." While his leadership and generosity have helped The Association to a more stable position than in it's younger days, Barnett's largesse in support of research has not waned.

One research project he helped fund eventually isolated the gene that causes some forms of ALS. When he received news of the discovery, Barnett was elated.

"That news brought a lot of excitement for every one," he recalled. "It brings us a step closer to breaking through and finding a cause and cure for the disease."

And he wasn't alone in his dedication to ALS. His wife Isabel, who passed away in September 2006, shared his devotion to ALS and other philanthropic pursuits. The two met while Barnett was in England with the Music Corporation of America, the largest theatrical agency in the country. Isabel Bigley was playing the lead in the London production of Oklahoma. She would later win the Tony Award for her lead in Guys and Dolls. Isabel signed with the MCA label and four years later, they married.

The couple had four sons, two daughters, 15 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. "I've had a blessed life," he said.

The art aficionado was raised in Orrville, Ohio, a small community of 4,000 people. From the start, music was in his veins. The youngest of four children, Barnett in seventh grade, took violin lessons from the only music teacher in town. He became hooked and started an orchestra while in high school. He paid his way through college leading his band, "Larry Barnett and his Orchestra."

"I loved the business," he said. So much that I decided to go into show biz."

Barnett rose to become MCA's president, a position he held for 27 years. He also became associated with numerous other business ventures, including the Piper Aircraft Corporation and Warner Communications, Inc. which owns nine television stations across the country, and vice-chairman of United Television, Inc.

Through all the whirl of activity, Barnett said he has never lost his passion for public service. Though he had plenty of work commitments and little time, Barnett said he always made time for philanthropy. "It wasn't satisfying to just make money," he said. "You have to do something more. You have to look at the world around you and see what you can do to help and contribute to society."

Barnett received his degree from Ohio State University in 1988 - 53 years after he'd first enrolled at the school. He had left school in order to pursue his career in the entertainment industry. He completed his course work with a business research thesis. The report earned him an "A" and a bachelor's degree in business…at the age of 75.

"It was a very happy moment for me," said Barnett. "I'd wanted to go to night school and get my degree but never had the time. I'd finished everything in life. And it always bothered me that I never finished college." Since then he was also been honored with a doctorate in fine arts from the university.

Barnett wanted to do more than just be an alumnus of the school. He was able to combine his love of the arts and business, "a dream come true," he said, when he helped put together the Barnett Arts and Public Policy Symposium at the university in 1991. He co-chaired the school's fundraising campaign.

"I wanted to give away some of the successes I've had in life," he said. "I've always wanted to be able to look back at my life and say that I've done something for other people - that my life wasn't a selfish life."

And Barnett said, "ALS causes have really been my heart." His dedication was often renewed when he met ALS patients.

"Every patient makes an impression on you. When you meet an ALS patient, you keep asking yourself, 'what can I do to help this person?' It reinforces that we need to quickly find the cure or causes of this disease."

His commitment and leadership in the battle against ALS never went unnoticed. The ALS Association presented him with its Donald W. Mulder Award for Leadership, Dedication and Achievement in 1993 and he was the first recipient of the Jacob Javits Lifetime Achievement Award two years later. Those working within The ALS Association thought it befitting to call Larry Barnett a "hero" of the cause, someone who fought for those waging their own war against ALS, someone who remained steadfast in his devotion to finding a cause and cure for the disease.

His faith, too, remained unwavering. "We're making progress in research. Sooner or later, we'll find the answer."

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