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A polio survivor’s courage inspired a loving legacy of giving

She was only 11 years old and understandably frightened. Told by doctors in the spring of 1947 that she had this mysterious-sounding disease called polio, Christine Wagner looked up from her hospital bed and asked her ashen-faced parents if she would ever walk again.

“They couldn’t answer me,’’ she recalled in a conversation I had with her several years ago. “I was just a young girl with my whole life ahead of me. Nobody knew what to expect.”

The next several years would be harrowing because back then we didn’t know what we do now about polio. We weren’t sure how to treat this disabling disease that was causing widespread paralysis and death. We didn’t have proven vaccines at our disposal. It was a scary, medical mystery we were trying to solve on the fly. Christine wound up spending 18 months in Rochester hospitals and convalescent homes. Her treatments often were tortuous. Therapy sessions included everything from stretching atrophied muscles until they felt as if they were going to snap to placing boiling-hot towels on her uncooperative legs. There were times when the pain was so excruciating she screamed.

Somehow, through it all, she kept the faith. Doctors, nurses, therapists and loved ones marveled at her determination, her courage. Christine remained upbeat, kept envisioning a future without crutches, leg braces and supportive corsets. Miraculously, she wound up walking again. And by lifting herself up out of that hospital bed she would raise the spirits of an entire community for decades to come.

Sadly, Christine Wagner Welch died the other day at age 86, following a battle with post-polio syndrome, which had confined her to a wheelchair these past two decades but couldn’t break her resolve. She leaves behind a husband, John Welch, four children, nine grandchildren, and one, remarkable legacy.

Perhaps no one was more inspired by her than her father, former Rochester Times-Union sportswriter Charlie Wagner. He was so grateful to the Infantile Paralysis Foundation (now the March of Dimes) for taking care of his daughter’s huge medical expenses that he searched for a meaningful way to say thanks. With the help of his former boss, Matt Jackson, they formed the Rochester Press-Radio Club and launched the Day of Champions Children’s Charity dinner in 1950.

Sixty-nine more dinners would follow, with Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Arnold Palmer, Jim Brown, Peyton Manning, Patrick Mahomes, Jim Kelly, and Cal Ripken, Jr. among the sports icons who came to town. Since the initial banquet, the club has raised nearly $2 million for local charities, and although COVID threw a monkey wrench into plans, with no dinner being held since 2019, the fundraising efforts continue with an annual golf tournament.

“People like to thank me for the dinner, but the real thanks belong to my dad,’’ Christine told me. “He was a great father who did a lot of good things behind the scenes. He was a lot of fun to be around, a real people person. He led a great life.”

So, too, did his daughter. And although she eschewed credit for the banquet that once was regarded as the premier sports dinner in the country during its Hickok Belt Award days, the reality is that she was the source of inspiration for the club that launched it. Without her dogged fight against the ravages of polio, it never would have been formed by Wagner, Jackson and 10 other kind-hearted sportswriters and sportscasters.

“When I was going through those treatments, I really didn’t consider myself courageous,’’ she said. “I was too young to understand what courage was. I was just an 11-year-old girl and I was really, really afraid because I was in pain and there was so much uncertainty. Doctors weren’t exactly sure what they were dealing with. My motivation was the same as other polio patients. I just wanted to be able to do the things I used to do. I wanted to be able to ride my bike and play tag, things like that.”

She wound up doing those things again – and so much more. After graduating from Our Lady of Mercy High School, she landed a job logging programs and commercials for radio and television station WVET. Her family became her pride and joy. She and her husband were married for 63 years. They reveled in spending time with their children – Marty, Kathleen, Eileen and Joanna – and grandchildren. And they enjoyed attending the annual Day of Champion dinners, where Christine’s appearance was always acknowledged from the dais. In the late 1970s, the club began presenting an award in her father’s name that, for years, honored sports writing excellence and later was changed to recognize people who had devoted their lives to promoting local sports.

The first Christine Wagner Welch Inspiration Award was presented in 2008, fittingly, to Christine herself. Since that time, a different inspirational figure in our community has been honored, and the list of winners is quite impressive, including everyone from a college softball coach who continued coaching while being treated for breast cancer to a nun who spent 50 years teaching at and supervising a school dedicated to children and adults with special needs. “I know Chris really appreciated having her name associated with that award, and meeting the people who won it,’’ her husband told me. “She inspired them and they inspired her.”

The last time I saw Christine was at a Press-Radio Club awards picnic at Frontier Field in early June. Her health had deteriorated dramatically since I last saw her three years ago. I wanted to make sure I thanked her again for inspiring all of us. She wasn’t able to say much, but she didn’t have to. Her smile said it all. It was the smile of a grateful, 86-year-old woman who had lived a long, rich life after refusing to give up hope in a time of great uncertainty more than seven decades ago.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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