Last summer, Ann Philip dumped a bucket of frigid water over her head to help raise awareness for ALS.
The devastating disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is relatively rare, found in about 2 per 100,000 people a year.
Philip didn’t know it when she took part in the viral Ice Bucket Challenge, but she was among them.
Symptoms became noticeable around August — weakness on her right side, some slurred speech.
With January came the official diagnosis.
Philip, 64, of Kennewick, a former leader of local organizations from the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce to the March of Dimes, has faced challenges before — from the death of two husbands to raising her grandson on her own.
Now, the community she’s worked hard for and called home for decades isn’t letting her down as she faces the biggest challenge yet.
Friends are stepping up with meals and transportation help, love and support. They’re also planning a fundraiser May 7 to help with Philip’s mounting expenses.
Philip said she’s grateful beyond words. As she deals with her declining health, she’s unbowed.
“I’m being strong and positive,” Philip said recently in the living room of her home.
Helen McCoy of Richland, her longtime friend, nodded. “She’s the most positive person you’ll ever meet.”
‘I have to stay strong’
Philip grew up in Iowa and attended the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, where she earned a degree in psychology.
In the early ’70s, she joined American Airlines as a flight attendant — a job that took her around the U.S. and beyond.
She studied Spanish for years, so she’d work flights to Latin America.
It was a glamorous gig. In those days, “if you couldn’t be a model or an actor, you could be a flight attendant,” she said.
Philip was a model too. She, McCoy and other friends spent years doing runway and print work.
Photos from that time show the stunning Philip gliding down the runway, gazing fiercely and flawlessly into the camera.
She also made her mark in other ways in the Tri-Cities.
She ran what’s now the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce from 1992 to 2002, more than tripling its membership and increasing its annual budget from $85,000 to $480,000-plus, among other achievements.
She also worked as Washington State University Tri-Cities’ development coordinator, the division director of March of Dimes and chief development officer of Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, retiring from that last job about a month ago.
She’s been involved with charitable groups and causes from the United Way to the Desert Sun Guild, which raises money for Seattle Children’s Hospital.
And she started a support group for grandparents raising their grandchildren.
“She has been so visible in the community. She’s been such a successful fundraiser because she’s so personable and so likable. The way she approaches people — she cares about them,” said longtime friend Sondra Wilson of Kennewick. “She has always reached out to people and been incredibly kind and generous.”
“She is such a strong person. She’s so optimistic and she’s so generous with her life,” added another close pal, Tamara Redinger of Richland.
While Philip earned admirers for her sunniness and good works, she endured some tough personal blows.
Her first husband, Robert Sanchez — with whom she shared her only child, a daughter — died in the mid-1980s while awaiting a heart transplant.
She later married Jim Philip, the son of Robert Philip, one of the Tri-City Herald’s founders. Jim died in 1999.
Ann Philip also has taken on the role of single parent to her grandson, Nathan Suarez, raising him from the time he was a baby because neither parent could care for him.
Nathan now is a 16-year-old high school sophomore. He’s clearly the joy of his Nonnie’s life.
Their home has photos from Philip’s modeling days, from her adventures. But, mostly, it’s filled with pictures of Nathan.
Asked whether she ever feels angry about her diagnosis, she nodded toward her grandson.
She can’t dwell in negativity, she said. “I have to stay strong for him.”
‘She sacrificed a lot’
ALS is a progressive disease, its effects growing worse over time.
It’s also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the Hall of Fame baseball player who died in 1941.
It affects the nerve cells that control voluntary muscles, like those in the limbs and face. Most people die within five years of symptoms setting in, although some live double that or more.
Philip said she is determined to beat the odds.
She has had to stop driving and sometimes uses a walker or wheelchair. Her speech also is affected, although her humor and cheerful spirit shine through.
On the recent afternoon at home, Philip talked about her love for her grandson, while also gently chiding him to get a haircut.
She’s tired of the scruffy look, she said.
Nathan playfully refused to commit, though he did promise to shave.
“I have to give her a lot of respect for taking me in as a child. Mom couldn’t raise me, so she took me in,” he said. “She sacrificed a lot to take me in. I’m grateful for that.”
As he spoke, Philip hid her face in her hands, her eyes welling up.
“No, no, stop,” her grandson said.
But he couldn’t help but smile.
‘I am very, very grateful’
The May 7 event will raise money for Philip for medical and living costs — and also offer plenty of fun, friends said.
Its theme is “Come Fly With Me,” a tribute to Philip’s American Airlines days.
Businesses have stepped up to donate food and other items. That’s a testament to how people in the Tri-Cities feel about her, friends said.
She always has been the kind of person who looks for something to smile about, and that remains true even now, McCoy said.
While her friends pitch in to help her, they keep things light too.
“When this all started, we said to her, ‘Do you want us to be nice to you now?’ ” McCoy said with a smile.
Philip shook her head. “I’d rather they make me laugh than cry,” she said.
Some tears will be coming. Philip and Nathan plan to leave the Tri-Cities this summer, after Nathan finishes the school year.
They’re moving to Iowa, where they have family members to help care for them.
It’s for the best, Philip said. But it will be hard to go.
For now, she’s enjoying time with people she loves, in the community that’s been her home for more than 30 years.
That’s helped her stay positive and strong.
“I have super great friends — and a lot of them. I can’t say enough,” Philip said. “I am very, very grateful.”
The fundraiser starts with a social hour at 6:30 p.m., followed by a fashion show featuring men’s and women’s clothes from Macy’s at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $50 to $100. They’re available online at www.annsfans.org.
The event is at the Lampson Hangar, 4222 Stearman Ave., Pasco.