citybeat (2006-36)

Making the most of a mid-life crisis: One man’s ambitious attempt to raise money for epilepsy research

Help for the chronic homeless is not in your pocket

Wednesday, Aug. 30

The Fool’s Errand

If an emphatic fellow approaches you with a hot-pink brochure, talking rapidly about an Epilepsy Trifecta, there’s a very good chance that his name is Bob Sutton. A former UT gymnast and sometime inventor who makes a living as a consultant on industrial steam-heating systems, Sutton is an unusual guy to begin with. He began running marathons in middle age, and recently has taken up boxing at an age when most boxers, if they’re still alive and sentient, have long since given it up. But it’s all part of the Trifecta, a series of three intimidating stunts he’s committed to do to raise money for epilepsy research. He may also raise the bar for the American male’s mid-life crisis.

Beginning next spring, during the year he turns 55, Sutton will “lead the Boston Marathon”—that is, run the entire course of it, unregistered, before the real leader catches up with him. He’ll fight a competitive match with a professional boxer. And, in the middle of an up-and-downhill 17-mile run in the Smokies, he’ll dive into the deep pool beneath Abram’s Falls to retrieve an expensive diamond ring; he calls that last event the Hillbilly Biathlon.

The Trifecta’s subtitle is “The Fool’s Errand.”

Unmentioned on his brochure is the fact that an unexpected fourth stunt is involved, and for Sutton, it may be the toughest: achieving fundraising legitimacy. National epilepsy foundations have held him at arm’s length, declining to endorse his Trifecta, which he admits is “odd and dangerous.” He says his first entreaty “looked like it was written by a suicidal maniac.”

He developed a strategy, announcing a grand scheme, an Epilepsy Trifecta, during a trip to Paris. Some of his promotional literature shows him brandishing his mitts in front of the Arc d’Triomphe. Sponsors would donate money on his behalf for epilepsy research, much in the same way walkathons raise money. He set up a website aptly titled, www.oldfool.net .

It was impressive, but a little premature. The Epilepsy Foundation of America turned him down, as did two other national epilepsy-research organizations. By then he’d enlisted several sponsors, most of them local. “Everybody I talked to thought it was a great idea,” he says, “except for the people I was raising money for.”

Doggedly he tried to raise money for epilepsy research on his own. He made up some brochures; they’ve gotten around. “I buttonholed the mayor at Green Hills Grille,” he says, and was happy to learn that Haslam had already seen the literature. “It’s hard to miss my hot-pink brochures,” he says.

A couple of weeks ago, he learned that even handing out brochures to promote his fundraising efforts is illegal. “So I solicited the mayor illegally!” he says.

Moreover, he learned he could be fined $5,000 for each brochure; by then he’d be facing a total fine of $750,000. He also discovered that some promotional boxing exhibitions to be held in Market Square required more permits than he realized, and would also be difficult to swing without a major sponsor.

Sutton despaired of finding a foundation to take his money until about two weeks ago. “I had been in the City County Building meeting the ladies who had been on the phone guiding me through the matrix of permits,” he says. “A lady in the mayor’s office told me about a recent mud-volleyball fundraiser at Chilhowee Park.” From a permit filed for the event, Sutton learned about the East Tennessee Epilepsy Society.

He spoke to Lynn Goad and Roy Krouse of the society. They were happy to sign on. “They said they were for doing anything to help the cause,” he says. “I nearly cried.”

But this preliminary event wasn’t over yet. Sutton’s prospective boxing opponent, local trainer Rico “the Caribbean Assassin” DeLeon, abruptly backed out. As of last week, Sutton says he has a line on fighting the Welterweight world champion—in the women’s division. He’s unfazed, as if this is an even better idea than fighting DeLeon. “Nobody’s done this since Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King,” he says. “I’m already outclassed in the ring. I’m not likely to win the fight.”

He’s arranged a motley group of local sponsors. One, local dentist Pablo Foncea, is committed to fix whatever teeth may get knocked out. 

It’s all for his daughter. After a horrific siege of mosquito bites on a camping trip when she was small, Ellen Sutton suffered a brain infection and later began suffering seizures. Medication keeps her seizures under control—now grown, she’s an honors graduate from American University—but the drugs are suspected of causing birth defects in women who conceive. That fact is of greatest interest to Sutton, who specifically wants to fund research to improve their prospects. He adds that epilepsy is among the most overlooked disorders, considering its prevalence—but that thousands of soldiers returning form Iraq with head injuries also run the risk of lifelong epilepsy, a condition still not well understood.

He’s gotten some resistance at home. “My clear-headed wife said, ‘I know this is a noble thing you’re doing. But please don’t.’”

For now, though, he’s in training. Lately he’s been working out with other aspiring boxers at the old Sertoma Center on Dandridge Avenue. “I’m the oldest one there by about 35 years,” he says. He likens himself to Don Quixote, and quotes Cervantes: “In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.”

Spare Change?

A tangle-haired woman paces back and forth alongside the patio of a Gay Street restaurant, muttering to herself and reeking of urine. A man in tattered clothes asks a woman if she can spare some change as she hurries past. On Market Square, four men clutching garbage bags are seated silently around a table, staring at the diners seated nearby.

For Knoxvillians who live, work or play downtown, the problem of chronic homelessness always seems exaggerated at this time of the year. Mild weather allows the “chronic homeless” (individuals with disabling conditions such as alcoholism or mental illness who experience continual or recurring homelessness) to stray from area shelters and spend more time on the street, creating the perception of a spike in that population.

But Roger Nooe, director of Knoxville’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, says that the size of the city’s chronic homeless population isn’t fluctuating as much as its late-summer rise in public visibility might let on. “The size of the chronic homeless population stays pretty consistent,” he explains. High visibility, he says, is owed to a variety of factors, ranging from the weather to the dwindling number of institutions equipped to deal with the disabling conditions that affect a large percentage of the area’s chronic homeless. “[Individuals suffering from mental illness or substance abuse] may not be the largest part of the homeless population, but they’re the most visible,” he says.

Ginny Weatherstone, director of the Volunteer Ministry Center, adds that she does suspect that there’s an increase in panhandling downtown—possibly due to an increase in visitors who don’t know the proper way to respond to panhandlers’ requests. But by giving the homeless handouts out of compassion, they’re making the situation worse in the long-term.

“The thing we can do to is take a kind of united approach, in terms of, do not give to panhandlers,” she says. “When someone approaches me, my standard line is, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t do that.’”

If the panhandlers say they’re hungry, Weatherstone recommends sending them to somewhere they can get food, such as the Volunteer Ministry. Ultimately, when panhandlers—some of whom aren’t even homeless—get the message that their actions aren’t yielding results, the panhandling will cease. 

Nooe agrees. “I don’t think you should give people money—I think that just encourages it, and we have good shelters,” he says. “I think you politely say ‘no’ and move on and go about your business.”

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, Aug. 30

Thursday, Aug. 31

Friday, Sept. 1

Saturday, Sept. 2

Sunday, Sept. 3

Monday, Sept. 4

Tuesday, Sept. 5