Wish Woman

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

Sipping coffee at midmorning around Linda Terrell's kitchen table is strictly a "come as you are" proposition. She hands you a well-worn mug, pours the stout black brew, and asks if you take milk or sugar. No fancy china cream-and-sugar set here. The half-gallon carton of milk is sitting in the middle of the table.

At the ends of the rectangular dinette set, Terrell and her friend, Susan Winn, pull long drags on cigarettes between sips and wave away the smoke wandering about their heads. The view from the tiny breakfast nook is of Terrell's backyard--which clearly belongs to the family's 5-year-old pit bull terrier, Buck. The grass is patchy and rutted, the yard filled with trash the dog has pulled out of the shed. Buck lopes around the yard, looking a bit menacing. But, Terrell says reassuringly, "He's a lover, not a fighter."

Throughout the cramped Mesquite house, light switches have been stripped of switch plates. A bare bulb hangs high above the kitchen table. One row of linoleum tiles covers the floor; the rest is bare concrete.

These are home-improvement projects that can wait, Terrell explains. Right now, there's a higher goal to pursue: a project she jumped into last fall that has mushroomed into an obsession.

Terrell--a big, boisterous woman better-known to her biker friends as "Tilt"--is the founder of Wishing on the Lone Star Inc., a fledgling wish-granting organization for people with terminal diseases.

By now, anyone who watches the 10 o'clock news or reads a daily newspaper knows of similar programs--agencies that grant final fantasies to plucky children with cancer or other fatal illnesses. The kids go to Disney World, or take a flight in a private jet, or hang out with a favorite sports star--often with TV cameras capturing it all on film.

But the 45-year-old Terrell has found a vacant niche in the noble fantasy-fulfillment business. Her organization--Terrell, her husband Jimmy, and six friends of friends who serve as the board of directors--grants wishes only to those 16 and older.

Since December, the group has quietly granted four "wishes" to gravely ill adults. One recipient, a 32-year-old mother of a 13-month-old daughter, died last month after spending one final romantic weekend with her husband. Another woman, a 38-year-old mother of four teen-agers, asked that her kids get a Christmas-lights tour; a Mesquite pilot obliged, flying them over Dallas' glittering neighborhoods and touching down to a party hosted by Santa Claus. A young Alabama man, dying of cancer, recently met his sports idol, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, and was treated to a day at the races in South Carolina.

"I know it's the kids who really tug at people's hearts," says Terrell. "They just do. And there are some very good organizations to grant them their wishes. But what if you're a man who just retired at age 50 and find out you have a terminal disease? If you use up all your money on medical expenses, you'll be lucky to keep your pickup truck and buy a six-pack of Dr Pepper on the weekend.

"If all he wants is to see his grandbaby that was just born in Montana, if all he wants is a plane ticket and he can't afford it, then by God, someone ought to be able to help him do that."

It's just that simple to Terrell. An unemployed mother of one--her husband is an elevator installer--she runs the organization by working the phones and her e-mail, pestering merchants for donations, and cobbling together fundraisers, all in the name of making the journey to death a little smoother.

People who are dying, she says, have very humble wishes. They want to visit family or take a short weekend trip. They want to see their children smile. For arranging such feats, Terrell draws no salary. The foundation's bank balance as of March 29 was $217.

Keenly aware that the business she has entered is ripe with scams, Terrell has made a point of filing incorporation papers with the state and legally establishing Wishing on the Lone Star as a nonprofit organization for federal-tax purposes.

But what the straight-talking Terrell lacks, what we have all come to expect of our professional do-gooders, is finesse. She has no United Way sponsorship, no flashy Highland Park matrons planning charity balls or elegant picnics on her group's behalf. Her name has never appeared in a society column. Terrell doesn't know how to write a grant. "I'd like to be able to do this without playing a bunch of games," she says. "But hell, I can wear beat-up tennis shoes or I can wear silk slippers. If it'll help with these wishes, I'll do it."

Her collar is blue, her speech is salty, and her heart is as big as her Dallas Cowboys commemorative Harley-Davidson that takes up the better part of her cluttered garage. Often putting in 12-hour days, Terrell hasn't turned down a wish yet.

Now if only software god Bill Gates will return her e-mail.
Denise Cowle lowers her spindly body onto the adjustable bed in her room at Doctors Hospital in northeast Dallas. The air is thick with the fragrance of roses and lilies from a fresh wicker-basket bouquet. Pinned to the bulletin board on the wall before Cowle's bed is a neatly folded "advance directive"--the legal document ordering medical staff to take no artificial measures to prolong her life once her physician determines death is imminent. It is dated December 14, 1995.

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.

"Linda has plenty of experience in working fundraisers," Skaggs says. "Her heart is huge and there really is a need for what she's doing now. We have referred several people to her because we simply don't grant wishes to adults. It's been heartbreaking to have to turn people down all these years."

There are some 85 wish-granting organizations nationwide, and Skaggs is in regular contact with many of them. She knows of no agency among them that helps people in the "30-to-50" age range. An Illinois foundation, she says, grants wishes to nursing-home patients. "I think all Linda needs is a chance. She has to prove she can raise funds, and make the wishes materialize. It's tough at first. How do you prove you're legitimate and effective if you can't get the donations?"

In February, Terrell and her board pieced together a wish by scrambling for donations from Mesquite and Garland businesses for Teresa Tipper, a 32-year-old Rockwall woman with a fast-spreading form of lung cancer. The disease was diagnosed shortly after the birth of her only child, Vanessa. Millie Arnold, an oncology nurse-manager at the Texas Cancer Center-Mesquite, provided Terrell with Tipper's name.

"You get close to cancer patients in a very short amount of time," Arnold recalls. "I realized that Teresa and her husband, Bruce, with the cancer and a little baby, hadn't had any time alone for a long, long time. I asked her if she would like a nice, romantic Valentine's weekend with Bruce. Her response was, 'Oh, Millie, someone is probably worse off than me.'"

The pieces came together quickly. Terrell's volunteers fanned out, hitting up local merchants for donations. A Garland Holiday Inn offered a free room for the weekend. Alfonso's restaurant in Dallas provided a candlelit dinner. A Mesquite salon gave Teresa a manicure and pedicure. "We bought her a little Dolly Parton wig and a sexy little teddy, and she loved it," Terrell says.

The week after her wish was granted, Teresa Tipper was hospitalized for the last time. She died two-and-a-half weeks later. Her husband, Bruce, is scrambling to run his own small trucking company and to raise their little girl. When he recalls his wife's final days, he remembers how happy she was for the short weekend getaway.

"It was something so simple, but so kind," he says. "I'll always be grateful."

When Terrell's own father was hospitalized with Hodgkin's disease at Baylor Medical Center 15 years ago, he shared a room with a young father suffering from the same form of cancer. The difference, Terrell says, was that her father survived the disease. The young man did not.

"My dad told me that in one of their conversations, this young guy told him if he ever got out of the hospital, he would love to take his wife to dinner and his kids to the circus one last time. My dad had my mom bring his wallet to the hospital, and he gave the man two $100 bills. 'Enjoy dinner and the circus,' he said.

"My dad had the money to do that, but not many people who are dying can afford those luxuries," Terrell says, seated at her kitchen table. "It stuck with me."

You could argue that the Terrells don't have the money for others, either. Nearly two years ago, Terrell quit her job as office manager for a small towing firm after a shoulder injury required extensive surgery. Her recuperation took six months. In the meantime, she says, her company went out of business. Her husband, Jimmy, is an elevator installer for U.S. Elevator. She has a 13-year-old son, Nicholas, from a previous marriage.

Terrell describes her husband of three years as "a big old Harley rider who's really just a big softie." His biker name is "J.T."--for Jimmy Terrell--and his own Harley sits beside his wife's in the garage, dismantled and under repair. Linda says he decided long ago to stand back and give her the time and space she needed to run her wish program. He declined to be interviewed for this story. "He can't stand to hear all these sad stories," she says. "If I tell him about these people, he gets all choked up. He really just can't handle it."

As a gas space heater glows in the corner of the living room, Terrell explains that their central heat went out a few weeks back, and it will cost $1,000 to replace it. Her home office--headquarters for Wishing on the Lone Star--needs new carpet and sheetrock. As she squeezes into the cluttered space, Terrell points out the "wall of stars," a display of four red-foil stars with the names of her wish recipients and the dates they received their wishes. "It won't be long before that whole wall will just be glowing with stars," she says longingly.

For a while, she says, she considered selling her prized Harley--painted bright blue and silver, and one of only 45 ever produced in honor of the Dallas Cowboys--and putting the proceeds into the organization. "I bought it in 1989. I bought it on time; I paid it off. It's all mine," Terrell says proudly. Terrell bought the bike for $16,000. It was recently appraised at $22,000. Her husband, she says, talked her out of selling it. "He was right," she says. "I'd miss it too much."

When she allows herself to project a future for Wishing on the Lone Star, Terrell sees a deluxe new computer and a bigger office in place of the present rag-tag digs. She says if she could figure out how to ask a big, fancy foundation for money, she'd gladly don the mink coat her mother gave her last year, pile her long and wild graying hair on top of her head, and hobnob with the horsey set. Whatever it takes.

Till then, Terrell and her workaday board of directors will continue to hold their monthly meetings, going over wish requests and finances, around her kitchen table.

"It's nothing fancy, but we seem to be getting a lot done," she says. "It's just, you know, grab a cup of coffee and a Twinkie, and let's get down to business.

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