Wish Woman

She hasn't got money or connections. But straight-shooting Linda Terrell is helping dying grownups live their dreams.

Cowle has fought cancer for three-and-a-half years, and, by her own admission, has been lucky enough to have the income for the finest treatment. Her husband, Todd, is a Dallas investment banker. Their Preston Hollow home was appraised last year at nearly $1 million.

Yet it is not a matter now of if, but when, she will die. And when it happens, she will leave behind three daughters, ages 6, 5, and 3. "When you're going to be 44, and you have a terminal illness, what makes your husband and children happy is what makes you happy," Cowle says, rubbing all that remains of her self-described "Highland Park bob"--a stubble of gray hair that sprouted after numerous chemotherapy sessions.

And what would make her husband and children happy, she says, is to meet Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

"I've been to Europe. My daughters go to Hockaday. I don't need anything. Once, when I asked my husband who he would like to meet more than anyone else in the world, he said, 'Bill Gates.'" So when Denise Cowle's baby sitter heard about Wishing on the Lone Star last December, Cowle called Terrell and asked for her final wish.

"I want for my family to fly to Seattle and meet with Bill Gates," Cowle says, her speech slurred and labored, a result of eight tumors in her brain. Her breast cancer has spread to her lungs, liver, bones, and head. "We don't want any money. We can pay for the plane tickets ourselves. All he would have to do is see my family."

The dying woman's wish, if not impossible, is at least ironic. Denise Cowle, who has friends in high places, who knows a good bit about nonprofits and fundraising herself as a Hockaday and Lamplighter school mom, is depending on a brassy woman from working-class Mesquite for help. Clearly, it isn't connections, but persistence that Terrell brings to the table. And Cowle is glad for that.

"Linda is good country folk," she says. "She wants to make people's dreams come true, and she doesn't expect a lot in return."

Terrell contacted Microsoft in January with Cowle's request. Three weeks later, company spokeswoman Christine Santucci wrote back, with a cordial but flat refusal of Gates' time. Not even close to giving up, Terrell and friends set off a flurry of e-mail pleas to Gates via the Internet, all of which went unanswered. On March 9, Cowle composed her own letter to Gates, hoping to change his mind about granting her family an audience.

"I have been told you have no available time in your schedule. Mr. Gates, if anyone does not have time, it is I. I was given six months to live back in September of 1995. I will not be around to see my daughters' first dates, graduations, or weddings. I will not live to see another spring.

"My life has been full of many wonderful experiences, but there are few things that bring me joy now: those are my daughters and my husband. It is on their behalf that I make this appeal to you. You are a man of such intelligence, prestige, and distinguishment, and a man who has acted on his dreams and aspirations. While you may be hesitant to engage in this meeting, I assure you the visit will be upbeat and lively."

Late last week, Terrell enlisted the help of Robert Maynard, owner of Internet America, a Dallas-based Internet access provider. She hoped he might have some connection with Gates. Maynard doesn't, but he knows local businessmen who do. One of them, Lyle Griffin, president of InterGo Communications, a Plano software firm, sent this message to Maynard last Friday:

"Robert: The request from make a wish on the Lone Star group has been passed on personally to Bill G. I guess it's now in his hands. I'll keep you posted as things develop. Lyle."

Maynard doubts the original request ever reached Gates. "At least for me, it was terribly humbling to hear this request of a dying woman. From what I've heard, Bill Gates is shocked by the magnitude of his own success." If Gates had actually seen the letter, says Maynard, "I would be shocked if he didn't find a way to set something up."

Terrell is still waiting. And working. "I know Denise's second wish was to meet the Pope," she says. "That probably would have been easier to arrange."

If Pat Skaggs has learned anything during her 13 years in the wish-granting business, it's that "you can't be a little mouse and expect to get anywhere." Skaggs, who knows Linda Terrell--and knows she is no mouse--is founder and executive director of Wish with Wings Inc., in Arlington. Her agency grants last wishes to children.

Skaggs has advised Terrell in getting her organization up and running. The two women met six years ago, when Terrell asked Skaggs if she and her biker friends could donate Christmas toys to Wish with Wings' sick clients and their siblings.

That began "Tilt's Toy Run"--an annual 5.7-mile motorcycle ride from Brown's Cycle Repair in southeast Dallas to the Overhill Club, a bar near Balch Springs. The bikers strap toys to their Harleys and drop them at the club, where recipients of the charity pick them up. Past toy runs have benefited Parkland Memorial Hospital's burn center and Kaufman County social services, as well as Wish with Wings.

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