Chris, 7, was sworn in as a state trooper just a few days before he died from leukemia.
His wish was to be a police officer. Now his mother, formerly of Geneseo, continues his legacy by granting hundreds of thousands of wishes for children with critical illnesses all over the world.
When Linda Pauling's son had his wish granted before his death, she and a few others who knew him had an idea: There are more sick kids out there who could benefit the same way Chris did.
Now almost 40 years later, the Geneseo native's idea has turned into the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a famous nonprofit that grants the wishes of children who are critically ill.
Pauling's personal tragedy led her to become the co-founder and "mother of Make-A-Wish."
Chris was born Aug. 8, 1972, and died just seven and a half years later. But for the foundation, that marked the beginning.
A mother remembers
Pauling grew up on a Geneseo farm with her parents and brother, Gary Bergendahl, who now lives in Rock Island.
She graduated in 1969 from J.D. Darnall High School in Geneseo. She later married Tony Greicius, and they lived in Kewanee.
Their son Chris was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 4½. Pauling's father had just died, and she was traveling to Phoenix to see her grandparents.
On the drive to Phoenix, "Chris just held to me very tightly, wouldn’t look at anybody, and wouldn't talk. He wouldn’t do anything," she remembered.
Pauling's mother thought something was wrong, but Pauling didn't. "Mom, it’s the dead of winter, and he’s missing Grandpa. He’s 4½ years old. He’s mad," Pauling said.
She arrived in Phoenix on Feb. 4, 1977. A doctor was just down the street from her grandparents' house.
"The doctor did a single blood test, a prick of the finger, and said, 'He has leukemia.' Being a farm kid, I’d never heard these words before. I said, 'How do we get rid of it?'"
The doctor sent them to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. "Gary, my brother, was driving," Pauling remembered. "I saw the big sliding doors, and everybody in white." She handed her son off to a doctor, who disappeared through the emergency doors.
"It was a little bit later that I was taken to where Chris was," she said. In walked a nun, a priest and Dr. Paul Baranko, a pediatric hematology-oncology specialist who is still Pauling's good friend.
"They came into my corner waiting room where you could smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. I looked at the three of them, and I literally felt my heart stop because I thought Chris was dead. Paul starts going into the medical jargon. I just held up my hand and said, 'Look, give me the bottom line and tell me what I can understand.'"
She learned Chris had about three years to live.
Pauling decided she would stay in Phoenix. "I knew in my mind I could never go back to Kewanee," she said. "I knew this was going to be my home."
'God help me'
Pauling prayed: “God help me live a lifetime in three years with Chris.”
Upon her son's release from the hospital, it took Pauling about a month to get herself oriented and explain to her husband why she couldn't come back.
"I knew I needed to get a job. I needed to make a life," she said. "I made myself a little list, being the logical Swede I am.
"I soon realized I didn’t have many skills, other than working in a hardware store in Kewanee, that were useful in Phoenix." She decided to attend Scottsdale Community College and begin looking for apartments.
A student named Kay Austin saw Pauling was struggling. She asked Pauling to come to her house to study, and Pauling brought along Chris.
"In walks (Austin's) husband, Tom, getting off duty. He was a U.S. Customs agent.
“They didn’t know about Chris’s illness. I didn’t tell people. This was our problem," Pauling remembered.
Chris had on a little gun and holster set, and "a little jacket with police things on it," Pauling said. Tom Austin rubbed Chris's head and said, "Whoa! What have we got here?"
"Chris wakes up and pulls his gun and says, 'I’m a cop!' Tommy (Austin) is just grinning from ear to ear."
Tom Austin pulled out a badge. "From that moment on they became friends forever. Buddies, friends, partners. There was no keeping them apart," Pauling said.
What Chris really wanted was to become a police officer.
"They talked about how to catch the bad guys and what to do with them when you catch them. That started three years of friendship with Tom and Kay and their kids," Pauling said. "When they found out about the leukemia, Tommy said, 'Someday we’re going to do something special for him.' I figured maybe they would let him ride in a police car."
After two remissions, Chris' cancer eventually returned a third time. At one point in the hospital, he asked his mother to call Tom Austin.
Austin had been working undercover narcotics with the Highway Patrol. His partner was Arizona Department of Public Safety Officer Ron Cox. Cox had heard about Chris during his late-night stakeouts with Austin, waiting for planes to come down in the desert. He told Austin to count on him to give Chris a special treat.
"When Tommy got that phone call from me, he called Ron Cox and said, 'Ronnie, it’s time.' The word spread through the Highway Patrol like you wouldn't believe," Pauling said. "It was better than a backyard gossip fence."
Cox decided he Chris would go on a helicopter ride. When the day came, reporters arrived to take photos and film the scene.
Chris flew around town, and also sat on a motorcycle and steered a patrol car.
“They marched him into the dispatch center, and he got to see how the patrol cars communicate," Pauling remembered. "It was the whole ball of wax that whole day."
Chris was "sworn in" as a highway patrolman. He even got his own uniform.
"They nicknamed him their little bubblegum trooper," Pauling said. "He was blowing bubbles the whole time." (Pauling later wrote a book about Chris and Make-A-Wish called "Little Bubble Gum Trooper: A Mother's True Story of How the Make-A-Wish Foundation Began," available on Amazon.)
Chris took the oath of office, just like every other officer, and was presented with an official certificate to make him an honorary highway patrolman.
Chris is still honored today by the DPS, which has on display a full-scale mannequin with a uniform and pictures and plaques of Chris. "Everybody who goes through there, they know this is their little trooper. Chris became one of theirs," Pauling said.
“Something was born that day that just is indescribable," Pauling said.
Just days after becoming a trooper, Chris died.
"I buried Chris in Kewanee at Tony’s family's area," Pauling said, adding that she and her ex-husband remained friends after divorcing.
“I felt he needed him back there," she said. "When I returned from Chris’ burial, the guys already had been talking. They said, 'This was so cool; everybody was so excited.' The wife of an officer said, 'You know what? There are more kids out there. Let’s go find them.'"
Make-A-Wish co-founder Tom Austin is quoted on the Make-A-Wish website: "He was only 7 years, 269 days old when he died. But he taught me about being a man. I can tell you that because of meeting Chris, I am an entirely different man. Ron Cox said the same thing. He said he didn’t fear death anymore, because he knew Chris would be there waiting for him. ”
"It’s like the good Lord just smacked me in the back of the head," Pauling said. We listened and learned and spent nine months filling out IRS 501c3 papers."
They met at a sergeant's home and opened a bank account with $37.76 between them. "There were five of us there that night."
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The first child they helped was another little boy who had the same doctor who had treated Chris.
“Walking back up those steps to the hospital … you see all the parents, and it kind of floods your mind again,” Pauling said.
"I know how Chris felt. I know what was given to him. I saw a little boy I hadn’t seen for a while stand tall, proud, with more energy than I had seen for a long time.
"To be able to give that back to another family, that was my whole desire. That was my entire wish, to let them feel that," Pauling said. "To be able to provide that family with hope, with strength, with joy, memories that will last a lifetime, whether the child has passed away or not."
The Q-C's giving heart
Long before Chris was born, Pauling saw the giving heart of the Quad-Cities. She credits one particular moment as part of her inspiration for Make-A-Wish.
Pauling grew up on the outskirts of town but in a close-knit neighborhood. When a neighbor farmer died, his son stepped in to take over. Word spread about the father's death, and several nearby farmers pitched in to help plow his field.
"I saw them drive over to the farm, and they just pulled in the gate and started one by one," Pauling said. "They probably had three or four different tractors plowing up this field.
"That’s what people did, is come to someone’s aid. That’s the world I came from, to help one another."
In the years since then, she hasn't stopped doing that.
Make-A-Wish is pretty much an open book, she said.
"I do about 12 gala balls a year," Pauling said. Sometimes she pops into the office and brings doughnuts. "The chapters know they can contact me right here at home.
"We are based on volunteerism. I do not get paid. I don't want to get paid. I am simply here as a volunteer — 'mother of Make-A-Wish,' they call me."
Pauling, 68, is now married to Eugene Pauling. Chris was her only child.
"My children have become the chapters. Struggling chapters are helped by other chapters that have more money. We all help one another," she said.
Make-A-Wish now has 60 chapters across the U.S., and more in countries across the world.
"Make-A-Wish is a family," Pauling said. "We just haven’t met all the cousins yet."
"We could just enjoy him"
Julie Staab, of Bettendorf, said her son's wish was a gift for the entire family.
Gavin, 9, has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes developmental disabilities, neurological problems and sometimes, as in Gavin's case, seizures.
Gavin, a third-grader at Pleasant View Elementary School, found out in October 2018 his wish to swim with dolphins in Hawaii would be granted. "He loves animals, and he loves the water," Staab said.
The family, including Jeff and Julie Staab and their children Connor, 11, Gavin, 9 and Audrey, 7, went to Hawaii, where they enjoyed a luau.
"Make-A-Wish went to great lengths to ensure that Gavin’s wish trip was a very pleasant experience for him," Julie Staab said. "It was absolutely magical for him. It made us all happy and relieved, and it just kind of a break. We could just enjoy him."
"You could put everything else aside and enjoy a vacation together."
'Hooked on the cause'
Bill Moylan, Bettendorf, is a “wish-granter” who has supported the Make-A-Wish organization for many years.
Moylan, who works for Northwestern Mutual in Davenport, became interested in Make-A-Wish in the early 1990s when he served as vice chairman of Life Underwriters.
He was in charge of securing speakers for monthly programs. “I thought it would be nice to give a nonprofit three minutes on the program and pass the hat,” he said.
Various speakers talked briefly, and attendees — usually 80 to 90 agents — contributed about $80 or $90 to the organization represented.
“Someone told me about this guy in Cedar Rapids with Make-A-Wish,” Moylan said. When the man came to speak, “I never timed how long he talked, but I’m thinking it was around 20 minutes. Nobody in the place complained.”
The attendees contributed $1,100 to Make-A-Wish.
“I gave him my money in the form of a check. The more I read about it, the more I became enthralled with it,” said Moylan, who has been active with Make-A-Wish for 20 years, even serving on the state board.
“We started the gala in February of 2000,” Moylan said. Pauling spoke at an annual Riverbend Area Make-A-Wish gala. “She did a phenomenal job,” Moylan said.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation of Iowa covers the entire state. Within the state are 13 committees.
“We try and fundraise and grant wishes, and we keep it from about Muscatine to close to Clinton, which has its own (committee)," Moylan said.
“One of the first things I did, I helped a boy out on his wish. He went to Chicago and met Michael Jordan. That's what really solidified it. I was there when he came back.”
Wishes can be granted for a child between the ages of 2 ½ and 18 with a critical condition.
“If you know of somebody, I can’t nominate them. The parent, the grandparent, social worker, or even the child themselves, they call the paid people in Des Moines and discuss the condition, the prognosis and (name) the doctor," Moylan said. Then Make-A-Wish in Des Moines verifies with the doctor and lets the doctor make the call whether this is really a life-threatening condition.
“Last year a boy wanted to go see the Chicago Bears," Moylan said. So he asked the boy, “What did you think of the Cutler trade?" (In 2009, Jay Cutler was traded to the Chicago Bears after requesting a trade from the Denver Broncos.) "All he did was drop his head and shake it side to side. Then I knew he was a Bears fan.”
One girl with sickle cell anemia called Des Moines on her own. “This was the only time I ever had a Make-A-Wish kid call Des Moines. She wanted to go to New York City and do a model shoot," he said. "The Ford Agency kind of took her under their wing."
The girl tried on several dresses for the shoot. When she was done, she counted her money and decided on the blue dress.
Instead, she went home with every dress she tried on, including the blue one, along with a portfolio.
“Stuff like that," Moylan said, "makes it really easy to get hooked on the cause."
Longtime friend remembers
Linda (Brown) Lievens, who still lives in the area, spent time earlier this year with her dear friend Pauling, who came back to J.D. Darnall's Class of 1969 reunion.
Pauling was likable, Lievens said. "I don't ever remember her having a problem as far as getting along with other people," Lievens said.
She remembered they played dodgeball together. "She was outgoing. Always full of life and full of laughs," Lievens said.
Lievens took Pauling to see the house where Pauling once lived. They also revisited Shady Beach on the Rock River. "That brought back a lot of memories. We talked about ice-skating at Linda's pond," she said. "I think she had a '57 Chevy."
They also went shopping and enjoyed a tour of the school. All the while, they reminisced.
The reunion was Sept. 28. On Sept. 27, Pauling, with her former husband, Tony, visited their son's grave.
"I never thought she would have to go through something like this," said Lievens. "I think she had to go through something horrible to do something great."