Italian Winterfest draws big crowd despite wintry weather, NFL playoffs

Italian Winterfest draws big crowd despite wintry weather, NFL playoffs

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A scientist who spent years of his life pioneering the secrets hidden deep within a child's DNA revealed his own DNA is of Irish origin.

"Like Joe Birch, I'm of Irish descent," said Dr. James R. Downing, MD after this reporter, emcee of the Italian Winterfest, made the same confession of his heritage moments earlier.

The Italians could have cared less! A large Memphis crowd of mostly Italian heritage cheered the President and CEO of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital enthusiastically and repeatedly at the Racquet Club of Memphis.

Downing was introduced by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland as the 5th annual "Honored Guest of the Winterfest," a fundraiser for Ave Maria Home in Bartlett and the Catholic Education Scholarship Fund.

The also non-Italian Strickland noted that Downing, who became St. Jude CEO in 2014, is now leading a dramatic expansion of the hospital that will add more than 1,500 jobs.

Downing gave credit for his success to his colleagues at St. Jude who have launched the world's most ambitious efforts to discover the origins of childhood cancer and to seek new cures.

Downing was instrumental in launching the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project (PCGP), which has sequenced the normal and cancer genomes of more than 800 young cancer patients. This work has given St. Jude researchers greater insights into the least understood and more aggressive tumors.

Now as St. Jude CEO, Downing has united a formidable army of researchers and staff to launch an all-out attack on pediatric cancer and other catastrophic diseases that affect children.

The Italian Winterfest crowd gave Downing repeated standing ovations for his bold vision to speed up Founder Danny Thomas' dream that "no child should die in the dawn of life" as well as Downing's decades of dedicated service at St. Jude.

The 2018 Italian Winterfest also honored a family that was extremely active in the founding of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital as well as a host of other charitable causes.

James and Linda Gattas of James Gattas Jewelers received the third annual Italian Winterfest Outstanding Service Award. James' father, Fred P. Gattas, was a close confidant of St. Jude Founder Danny Thomas and served as Chairman of the hospital's Board of Governors.

James and Linda Gattas have carried on their family's legacy of community service at Ave Maria Home, Birthright, St. Louis Catholic Church and School, Christian Brothers High School, Youth Villages, Habitat for Humanity, Porter Leath and many other good causes.

Linda is a member of the "Wings of Ave Maria," serving the Catholic retirement community with charitable gifts as well as service to the seniors who reside there.

"We are part of Memphis' Lebanese American community and we grew up at the St. Therese Little Flower parish with so many of our Italian neighbors and friends," said James Gattas of his family's origins on the north end of Midtown.

The Italian Winterfest crowd gave the Gattas' an enthusiastic standing ovation after hearing the long list of their constructive service well known for decades across the Memphis community.

A live auction featured a purse donated by Oak Hall filled with cash as well as a dinner prepared by Rev. Ben Bradshaw, a renown professional chef. Pete and Sam's Restaurant, currently under reconstruction after a fire, donated dinner for eight once a month for a year to the high bidder. The Pete and Sam's gift was sold for $2,300 for the benefit of the Italian Winterfest's charities.

Hundreds of Memphians braved the icy streets to fill the Racquet Club and enjoy delicacies by Coletta's, Dinstuhl's Fine CandiesDino's Grill, Folk's Folly, Garabaldi'sLa Baguette, Leonard's Pit Barbecue, Lucchesi's PastaPesce's Authentic Italian SausageThe Italian Rebel, The Racquet Club, and Vanelli's Deli.

The Italian Winterfest was dedicated to its founders: the late Angelo Lucchesi and the late Sam Bomarito who started the event with Tony Barrasso who performed traditional Italian tableside music with his accordion and winning smile.

The event attracted 1,000 supporters in 2017 and raised $30,000.

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