Duo raises money, awareness for MMI autism program

by Tom O’Connor, UNMC public affairs | June 09, 2005

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Gail Werner-Robertson is flanked by two former star athletes at the University of Nebraska -- Erick Strickland, left, and Tommie Frazier.
One is a mathematical genius. The other is the head football coach at Notre Dame. Together they were a dynamic one-two punch in raising awareness and money for the autism program at UNMC's Munroe-Meyer Institute.

The duo - Jerry Newport, the mathematical savant, and Charlie Weis, the Notre Dame coach - spoke Sunday evening at a fund-raiser at the Durham Heritage Western Museum, which was attended by 500 of some of the area's most prominent citizens. The event - coupled with Monday's golf tournament for 244 golfers at Shadow Ridge Country Club - raised more than $642,000 for the MMI autism program.

Gail Werner-Robertson, founder and CEO of GWR Wealth Management LLC, and her husband, Scott Robertson, president of UltraAir Charter, led the events. The Robertsons are parents of two children with autism spectrum disorders. UNMC Chancellor Harold M. Maurer, M.D., and his wife, Beverly, served as honorary chairpersons for the events. Newport's message could be summarized in one word - "family."

"Families are absolutely the most important thing you can have behind you," said Newport, who has Asperger's syndrome, a neurobiological disorder characterized by significant impairment in social interaction skills. "My family always accepted me," he said. "I was still a Newport. Inclusion starts at home. There's a place for everybody in the community."

Newport, 56, was born five years before autism was even coined and many years before Asperger's syndrome became known. He was diagnosed with Asperger's after one of his friends saw the 1988 movie "Rain Man" and thought Newport was like the movie's lead character, Raymond Babbitt, a mathematical savant lacking in social skills who was played by Dustin Hoffman.

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Charlie Weis, left, and Jerry Newport were the speakers for Sunday's dinner.
Newport, who was salutatorian of his high school class, was nicknamed "The Computer" for his incredible math skills. Instantaneously, he can multiply large numbers in his head or tell you how many letters are in the sentence he just heard.

Newport's social skills, however, were nowhere the level of his math skills. He would show up at parties, even though he wasn't invited. He wasn't good at sports, although he did compete as a quarter miler on the track team.

He found his niche by playing trombone in the school band and serving as manager of the basketball team. "My favorite period of the day was band practice.I was like a seal at Sea World," he said. "I'm different. I make the most with what I have. I was able to socialize my statistical abilities by being manager of the basketball team."

Newport, who has spoken at more than 150 conferences around the world, was impressed with the community support for autism spectrum disorders in Omaha. "I've never seen a group like you have here," he said.

Weis will be entering his first season as head coach of The Fighting Irish this fall. He comes to Notre Dame with a glowing resume, including three Super Bowl rings in the past four years as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots and a fourth Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants in 1990.

Although his football accomplishments are legendary, Weis didn't come to Omaha to talk about football. Rather, he came to talk about his non-profit foundation - Hannah & Friends. The foundation was formed in honor of his 10-year-old daughter, Hannah, who has special needs.

Hannah was born with polycystic kidney disease and was only expected to live a few days, Weis said. She weathered that storm, but between 18 months and 30 months, the family realized that Hannah might have some issues. As Weis puts it, she was a "little funky."

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UNMC Chancellor Harold M. Maurer, M.D. with Gov. Dave Heineman.
Hannah stopped talking and became very inward. She would stare at the television set, get upset a lot and rarely picked up her toys. The diagnosis: autism.

Over the past eight years, Weis and his wife, Maura, have built their lives around finding the services Hannah needs. When Weis was an assistant coach with the New York Jets, he drove 88 miles each way to work, so that his family would be close to the services that Hannah required.

"Hannah is my passion in life," Weis said. "I don't golf. I don't fish. I give every second of my time outside football to my family. My family is heck of a lot more important to me than football."

As Weis' stature grew on the gridiron, it provided the Weis family with the visibility it needed to start the foundation. The goal of the foundation is to provide a better quality of life for children and young adults affected with autism and other global delays.

Weis said the foundation helps families without the financial resources needed to take care of children with special needs. The foundation provides assistance in a variety of ways, Weis said, from putting a fence around a yard to buying a special bicycle. He said the foundation's next goal is to build a horse farm for children with special needs.

Thanks in large part to the motivating speeches of Newport and Weis, more than $150,000 was raised at the oral auction at Sunday's dinner and another $15,000 was raised in the silent auction. One couple was motivated enough to make a $5,000 donation after the dinner.

"The fund raising efforts of GWR were fantastic, but even more important is the awareness of the needs of individuals with autism and their families," said Bruce Buehler, M.D., MMI director and chairman of the UNMC department of pediatrics. "Gail Werner-Robertson and the committee are true champions that have changed the future for autism services in the state of Nebraska."

In the most recent rankings, Nebraska ranked 49th among all states in its autism services, Dr. Buehler said. Now, with this major infusion of funding, including MMI's hiring of two new faculty members from Johns Hopkins University, he said Nebraska has the potential to be a leading state for families with autistic children.