Putting MDA on PARADE

by Christina Medvescek on September 1, 2005 - 3:46pm

QUEST Vol. 12, No. 5

Meeting Walter Anderson is a bit like meeting a walking, talking issue of Parade magazine. Just like the magazine of which he is chairman and CEO, Anderson is engaging, friendly, determinedly upbeat and brimming with human-interest stories.

Take, for example, the story of how he became friends with Jerry Lewis, a friendship that ultimately led to 20 years of Labor Day weekend Parade magazine covers and major features celebrating MDA and promoting the Telethon.

Walter Anderson
Walter Anderson, chairman and CEO of Parade Publications, became friends with Jerry Lewis when the clown portrait (above) was shot in 1984. Since then MDA has been featured on some 20 Parade covers, including (left from top) covers in 1989, 2001 and 1994, and (right from top) 1999, 2002 and 1987.

Back in 1984, Anderson assigned Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Eddie Adams to shoot a picture of Jerry Lewis for the cover. Adams proposed photographing Lewis with a split face: half clown, half natural. But a problem quickly ensued.

Jerry didn't want to do it, Anderson recalls. Jerry's a clown and clowns always make up their own faces. But it's almost impossible to apply makeup to just half your face, so someone else would have to do it.

Eddie called me up and said, "Look, Jerry's very uncomfortable with this and he's not going to do it."

"I said 'I really want that shot,' and Eddie said, 'Well, why don't you talk to him?'"

Anderson had never met Lewis, but quickly had him laughing as he pressured him to agree. "I guess Jerry got a kick out of whatever I said, because he said, 'OK, I'll give it a try'. And of course, it's the single most famous photo of him ever taken," Anderson beams.

From there blossomed a friendship and more friendly pressure.

"I knew him a very short time before he began pressing me about MDA. He invited us out to the Telethon and it was a very moving experience," says Anderson, now an MDA vice president. The result was the first Parade cover and feature story on MDA in 1985, featuring Jerry Lewis and National Goodwill Ambassador Ben Teraberry.

Since then, almost every Labor Day weekend Parade cover has featured MDA in some way, as have several covers at other times of the year.

Parade has some 75 million readers, and is distributed by more than 340 Sunday newspapers across the country. Having a cover story in Parade magazine is a monumental contribution to the Association, says Robert Ross, MDA president & CEO. "You couldn't buy it, it's priceless."

"We like the people at MDA, but that's not why Parade is associated with it," Anderson says. "We're associated with MDA because it works, its ethic is real and it provides real hope for the future. No matter how insufferable the pain or the size of the challenge, there's a persistence, a relentlessness, that's admirable."

Up from poverty

Persistence and relentlessness in the face of a challenge are qualities that appeal greatly to Anderson.

Born in 1944 in Mount Vernon, N.Y., he grew up in poverty and endured years of physical and emotional abuse from an alcoholic father. An avid reader, Anderson hid his books to avoid a beating. Finally fed up, he quit school and joined the Marines at 17, serving in Vietnam, earning a GED high school diploma and graduating from three Marine Corps schools before his discharge at age 22.

"If I had to say just one word that defined me, that word would be Marine," he says firmly. "I was so young when I went in, it formed the basis of my personality. I learned trust, ethics, honesty, honor, loyalty."

Back in New York, Anderson finished college while working as an investigative reporter, then as a manager with Gannett Newspapers in New York. He joined Parade in 1977 and quickly was promoted to editor-in-chief, a post he held until 2000, when he assumed his present position.

Just like Parade, Anderson, 61, is a potpourri of interests. A passionate champion of literacy, he's written both a one-man show and a book that extol reading and storytelling.

Hes also written several books promoting courage, confidence and risk-taking: Courage Is a Three-Letter Word, The Greatest Risk of All and The Confidence Course. His latest book, Meant to Be: The True Story of a Son Who Discovers He Is His Mother's Deepest Secret, details his childhood struggles, the encouragement of his mother and others, and the secret he'd kept for 34 years that his mother's abusive husband wasn't his biological father.

Anderson's desire to help kids in trouble and his unswerving drive have attracted a prestigious collection of awards over the years. (One telling honor: In 1992 he was named one of the 10 Best-Mannered Americans by etiquette expert Marjabelle Stewart.)

In addition to his volunteer activities, Anderson currently is writing a novel and a two-act play, remodeling his Westchester County home with his best friend and wife of 38 years, Loretta, and fishing on his boat with their 6-year-old grandson.

Changing the world

In one of life's ironic twists, neuromuscular disease reached into the ranks of Parade in 2004, when photographer Eddie Adams, who shot 17 MDA covers for the magazine, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). A close friend, Anderson supported Eddie and his wife, Alyssa, throughout the illness, including vowing to carry out Adams' wish not to be hooked to lifesaving machinery should he lose consciousness.

The experience proved to him that the emotional support part of MDA is as important as the research component.

As a journalist with an eye toward societal change, Anderson praises the many improvements wrought by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but notes that for people with disabilities, society hasn't changed as much as we would like to believe. He bristles at the suggestion by some disability advocates that the MDA Telethon is politically incorrect.

"The Telethon is reality TV. It invented reality TV," he says, his genial eyes suddenly steely. "What you see on the Telethon is real. They could sugarcoat it, pretend that people don't die. But people do die."

"The Telethon doesn't hide people with disabilities behind a curtain, but provides an opportunity for them to participate in a constructive and reflective way."

Change against discrimination, against ignorance, against terminal disease is brought about not by laws but by the acts of people, he says. And so, like the magazine he's served for over two decades, Anderson tells stories to motivate people to use their power to change the world.

"When I was a little boy, I had an uncle who had a great deal of wisdom. He would answer any question I would ask. I'm sure I drove him crazy with my questions.

"Once, I remember I was about 7 or 8, and I must have heard something on the radio or TV. I asked, Uncle George, what's really important?

"He said, 'Walter, you've got to make a stink in this life.' Over the years, I've understood that to mean you have to make a difference. The only important things we ever do in this world involve others."

Other wise men have influenced Anderson as well.

"My good friend and mentor (Nobel Peace Prize winner) Elie Wiesel told me that it's only given to one in every 300 million people to make history, but it's given to all of us to participate in history.

"I want to use whatever influence I have in this life to help people understand that they aren't helpless, that they are participants," Anderson says.

"Each of us can make a difference. If you help one human being, then you've changed the world forever."

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