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Oaklawn's 2019 Benefit Auction sets record

MARSHALL – “Mitten State” fans filled the FireKeepers Casino Hotel ballroom Saturday, March 9, during the 29th annual Oaklawn Hospital Benefit Auction – and they turned out in record numbers.

As two giant video screens displayed the Michigan-Michigan State basketball game, the ballroom filled with more than 450 people – a new record for attendance. Many took the “Mitten State Pride” theme seriously by adorning themselves in state-related flair, including shirts and buttons promoting top attractions.

Meanwhile, bidders competed for hundreds of auctioned items – including trips, event and show tickets, memorabilia, specialty products, services and gift certificates – all donated by individuals and regional businesses. Many of the items reflected Michigan products, services and events.

One particularly happy winner was Neil Wilcox, who received a .69-carat round brilliant cut diamond from Hodges Jewelers of Marshall at the conclusion of the “Diamond Wine Pull.” That event featured an array of wine varieties. including many made in Michigan.

Wilcox immediately gave the diamond to “my girlfriend” – Phyllis Wilcox, his wife of nearly 52 years.

Prowling the ballroom were team mascots “Paws” from the Detroit Tigers, “Roary” from the Detroit Lions, “Porter” from the Kalamazoo Growlers and “Moe Skeeter” from the Battle Creek Bombers. They were joined by the “Buy Nearby Guy,” a Michigan-shaped character representing the Michigan Retailers Association.

Among those in the crowd who praised the evening’s activities was Rob Covert, who retired in 2013 as Oaklawn’s chief executive officer. He recalled the challenges volunteers faced when the first benefit auctions were organized nearly three decades ago.

“We used to hope for $10,000 net, and now the goal is more like $100,000,” Covert said. “It takes a tremendous amount of support and probably 150 volunteers and generous donors to make that happen. The hospital is an integral part of the town and it shows by the number of the people who are here. Marshall wouldn’t be the same without the hospital. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

This year’s chief focus was to upgrade and purchase new technology for Oaklawn’s orthopedic services. Those attending the event were introduced to the new Mako robotic surgical system, a Stryker product that will permit Oaklawn’s expanding orthopedic and sports medicine services to perform partial and total knee replacements with reduced complications.

Kimberly McLean, D.O., thanked the crowd for its support in making such recent technology available to patients in the communities Oaklawn serves.

Gregg Beeg, Oaklawn’s interim president and CEO, called the addition of the Mako system a boon for the hospital and its patients.

Since 1991, the annual auction has raised funds approaching $2 million, allowing Oaklawn to purchase clinical equipment and provide health-care services to its patients throughout the communities it serves. Since 2015, the event has been held at FireKeepers, situated between Marshall and Battle Creek.

“The hospital does a lot throughout the year to support the community, so it’s important that we show up and do what we can to support the hospital,” said Joe Caron, Marshall’s mayor. “Without the hospital, we wouldn’t have the great local health care that we’re so thankful for.”

Master of ceremonies for the event was J. Gabriel Gates, a Michigan native who is a writer and actor who has penned such novels as “The Sleepwalkers” and “Blood Zero Sky.”

As the event concluded with a final tally that appeared to make this year’s goal a reality, Ryan Traver, chair of the auction committee, expressed his satisfaction.

“It was an extremely successful night, and there were no glitches,” Traver said. “Everybody is really pleased with the theme, and there were a lot of compliments about the raffle items. And I believe we hit a record number of people attending.” He also expressed gratitude to the donors, participants and to FireKeepers and its staff.

“The venue and their staff and technology are amazing; we’re fortunate to have a partner like the casino,” said Traver, who is owner and brand manager at BluFish in Marshall.

“It’s all about Michigan pride and thinking locally, which ties into the hospital and its needs,” said Nate Stewart of Eaton Corp., who was the event’s vice chair for the second year. “The donors came in with awesome prizes. This couldn’t happen without their donations and everybody’s terrific support.”

“People throughout the area have given Oaklawn tremendous help through the auction over the years, and this year’s auction was no different,” said Richard Lindsey, Oaklawn’s executive director of legal and community affairs.

“It would be easy to go overboard in saying how grateful we are for all of the help we received from everyone – our sponsors, volunteers and donors – for this year’s effort,” said Lindsey. “It means a great deal to us, and even more to our patients throughout the region.”