The Man Behind the Name

September 01, 2013

John Wayne's family carries out his greatest wish.
WRITTEN BY JEANNINE STEIN

John Wayne and son EthanMelinda Wayne Muñoz is certain that her father, John Wayne, would be proud of the cancer breakthroughs accomplished in his name. “I think he’d be thrilled that he gave his name to such a fine Institute.” When he was asked to lend his name to a cancer clinic, the actor saw an opportunity to help others.

The family of the actor and cancer activist didn’t walk away once the sign was in place, either. Each generation of Waynes is heavily involved with and committed to fighting cancer in their father’s name. Each person contributes however they can, says Melinda, from being part of a board to participating in a 5K run. Melinda, 72, and a resident of Orange County, serves on the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary's board of directors.

She’s not worried about the involvement of future generations, either. “Everybody fills the cup,” she says. “They do what they can.”

She speaks like a proud parent when ticking off the Institute’s accomplishments, including the sentinel lymph node biopsy technique developed by Donald L. Morton, MD, and the Institute’s Surgical Oncology Fellowship Program, which offers physicians specialized training.

“John Wayne is responsible for a lot of the cancer research that helps people all over the world,” adds Ethan Wayne, 51, the actor’s youngest son and chief executive officer of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, headquartered in Newport Beach, and president of John Wayne Enterprises. “The Institute is a big part of that story. We have a mountain of a man in Dr. Donald Morton. As we transition into the future, there is a lot of talent at the Institute.”

Marisa Wayne, 47, the actor’s youngest daughter, knows the Institute well. She serves on the Auxiliary’s board of directors. In addition to assisting in fundraisers, she actively supports the Institute’s Surgical Oncology Fellowship Program and serves as an ambassador for the Institute. Over the years, Marisa has discovered a variety of ways to pitch in. “I do basically whatever they ask me to do,” she says. “I’ve been involved, one way or another, since the Institute was founded.”

Working with various boards or committees has given each family member a greater appreciation of the Institute’s mission, says Michael Wayne, 46, John Wayne’s grandson and chairman of the board of advisors at the John Wayne Cancer Institute.

“Every year I’ve gotten to know more and more about what’s being done by the physicians and scientists, and that’s been critical in understanding better how I can help,” he says.

Michael heaps praise upon those on the front lines. “These doctors are great people – many are practicing physicians who have an interest in trying to wipe cancer out or, until then, extending the lives of people who have it.”

It was John Wayne’s admiration of Dr. Morton that led to the naming of the Institute. During his treatment, he gave Dr. Morton permission to attach his name to the clinic, and the late Michael Wayne, the actor’s eldest son, became the Institute’s first chairman of the board.

John Wayne and family“My dad clearly asked us, his children, to use his name to benefit the public, the people who were so loyal to him and his films,” Melinda explains.

The family’s decision to carry on his grandfather’s legacy with the Institute was the right choice, Michael adds.

“The biggest reason we did this is because cancer took him away from all of us when he was 72,” says Michael, a partner at the Los Angeles law firm Gibbs Giden. “He was a big, strong guy, and I think if he had lived, we would have seen more John Wayne movies.”

Adds Ethan: “I feel like I’m facilitating his work. He’d be honored that this work is getting done. He’d be amazed that he still resonates with people in a substantial way.”

Entire Wayne families are involved in carrying on the actor’s mission to improve cancer treatment. Michael’s wife, Christine, serves on the Auxiliary’s board of directors. Moreover, Michael says, he discusses the Institute’s work with their 14- and 16-year-old sons. The teens participate in community work, such as giving talks to their peers about the importance of using sunscreen to help prevent skin cancer.

“They understand the idea about helping others who are less fortunate,” he says. “I’m hopeful they’ll want to carry this on.”

Other Wayne great-grandchildren participate in activities to support cancer research, such as the Orange County Marathon’s 5K, which raises money for the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, says Anita Swift, one of Wayne’s grandchildren. Anita is on the Auxiliary’s board of directors and serves as its current president.

“We tell them about my grandfather,” says Anita, 55, whose husband, Tim, joins her in support of Institute activities.

“We all truly believe in this. Not only did my grandfather die of cancer but also my mother and my grandmother. As I travel the United States for the Institute and the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, I haven’t met anybody who hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way.”

The actor's fans may not realize that a portion of the profits from branded merchandise are directed to specific causes. “We put our money where it needs to be for cancer – for education and research,” she says. “That’s what he wanted.”

The actor remains a symbol of strength. In annual Harris Polls asking people to name their favorite movie star, John Wayne is consistently in the top 10. Decades after John Wayne made his last film, his son Patrick, 74, knows his father is anything but gone from the public eye.

“I don’t think any of us had any idea that his popularity and celebrity would be as strong as it is today,” he says.

Adds Marisa: “It just amazes me that no matter where I go, people have a story about how my father touched their lives or the lives of their parents and grandparents.”

The late actor still resonates with people, which has helped draw awareness and support to what the Institute is doing, says Patrick, chairman of the board of directors of the Institute. “It makes you get up in the morning; it makes you want to do more.” His wife, Misha, serves on the Auxiliary’s board of directors and is involved in the planning of the annual Benefactors Dinner.

The family’s presence is felt at the Institute on a daily basis, says Anton Bilchik, MD, PhD, professor of surgery, chief of medicine and chief of the gastrointestinal research program at the Institute.

“The family doesn’t just talk about supporting the Institute, they take action to make things happen,” Dr. Bilchik says. “They are keenly interested in how the Institute develops, and then they ask what they can do to make our goals a reality.”

Patrick, who lives in Toluca Lake, says his father set an example for being proactive. He recalls that his father’s battle with cancer “didn’t slow him down at work at all. He also talked more publicly about the fact that he had cancer.” He did it “to give hope to other cancer patients. Even in the last few weeks of his life, he’d get out of his hospital bed and talk to people.”

And that, he says, personifies courage. “He was in a lot of pain, and for me, the most courageous I ever saw him was in his last days.”

Seeing his beloved grandfather ill no doubt fueled a fire in Michael to help others. “I recall seeing him be kind of a shell of what he was. It’s tough to have that image in your mind, but it didn’t make me forget about the good times.”

Those include accompanying his grandfather to cattle sales in Arizona and being with him on film sets. “I’d sit on his lap while he was playing cards, and he’d let me roll the dice for him,” Michael recalls. “He was just an amazing guy to be around. He had a great way of making you feel special.”

Ethan was only 17 when his father died. “I loved my dad,” he says. “He was older by the time I was born. We were sort of pals. He was easy-going. He guided people gently.”

Marisa remembers her father, who died when she was just 13, as gracious and hardworking. “He had a zest for life—everything was fun, and he had a big personality. When he walked in a room, you knew he was there. He was very happy in his own skin, and I think that showed in the way he treated people. It was great having a dad like that.”

John Wayne was a loving father with a great sense of humor who raised his children to be humble, responsible adults, assigning them chores when they were young, Melinda says. “When you’re given so much in life, you need to give back.”

So many years after the actor’s death, the Wayne family members are overjoyed to see the scientific accomplishments of the Institute. They commend the Institute’s many supporters and outstanding faculty and staff.