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What Lou Weisbach Wants to Cure

Jane Ammeson talks with the entreprenuer and philanthropist about his quest for cures.

By JANE AMMESON
    Borrowing $3,500 from his mother, Lou Weisbach, a former high school basketball coach, started HA-LO Advertising Specialties in 1972, selling products from the trunk of his car. Eventually the company became the largest marketer and distributor of promotional products in the world with revenues growing to $740 million by 1992, when Weisbach took the company public.
    After Weisbach stepped down from his company, he campaigned for Al Gore in his run for the presidency and took the helm of Jefferson Trust, consisting of donors who had given more than $100,000 to the Democratic Party. But Weisbach, a philanthropist who has been on the boards of Keshet, Chai Lifeline, the James Jordan Foundation, Little City Foundation, Athletes Against Drugs and others, often pondered such questions as why America isn’t moving forward in curing more diseases. That’s why he started advocating for the creation of the American Center for Cures (ACC) in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with the lofty goal of creating a cabinet position for cures in the U.S. government. As Weisbach, founding partner of the Chicago-based Stadium Capital Financing Group, and his partner, Rick Boxer, M.D., a senior health advisor under President Bill Clinton and one of the country’s most prominent doctors envision it, ACC would find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes among many others, by bringing both accountability and centralization to mission-based research.  Weisbach, a  1969  graduate of DePaul University, resides in Chicago with his wife, Ruth. They have four children and two grandchildren.  Weisbach took time out to talk with Chicago Life about his quest.
 
What was the impetus behind ACC?
It never made sense to me that more Americans were dying of cancer this year than in 1950. Once I became comfortable that ACC was possible, I set out to make it happen. People wonder why we don’t get the cures done. We don’t because we don’t have the process, the right vision. If you sat down and said what’s the best way to cure diseases, you’d never do it the way we do it here in America or globally. There’s nobody whose job it is to be responsible to cure a disease. 
 
There are so many priorities right now, why should ACC be at or near the top of the list?
We’re spending over $1 trillion dollars on people with diseases this year. We spend  $185 billion to treat diabetes. If we stamp out a few of those diseases, we’ll have money for health insurance, for so many things. We believe that if you can cure one disease, then you can cure two, if you can cure two, then you can cure four. Tommy Thompson, former secretary of Health and Human Services, said one way to cure terrorism is to cure diseases. If America is known for being the benevolent country that is sharing cures, then people would be very hard put to harm a country who cured their mother’s Parkinson’s, their father’s diabetes.
 
Why do you think nothing was ever done like this before? Someone told me that people expect to die, expect to get diseases. I asked him a question. In the early 1900s, when tens of thousands of people were dying of diarrhea, did people think it should just happen? There are so many diseases that you don’t have to die from. One of our most ardent supporters was Christopher Reeve. His life could have been so much different if we had cures.
 
What can the American people do? Tell others about it. As people hear about it, they get excited. This is something for our future. It’s an opportunity for America to be proactive instead of reactive and to take our great genius and get this done. There is no more important change than this in America. And it comes down to people getting involved in government and telling them what we want, how we want our money spent. We’re hoping that people will take on this role. We have this great mission, this great intellect. Let’s stimulate our thinking and make this happen. To get something done in America, the public needs to demand it.
 
What about pharmaceutical companies? Do they have a role in this? Drug companies provide a wonderful service for the world, but this is not one of them.
 
Are you hopeful about the new administration? Yes. When is the last time you were proud of America’s goals?  Everyday that Clinton was president, he enunciated  what he wanted to accomplish: 2.2 million new jobs, more teachers, more policemen. He articulated his vision and how he was going to accomplish it. Nothing is more important than for Barack Obama to clarify that America is going to become the country of vision and accomplishments, the country for cures.
 
Do you think ACC fits in with President-elect Barack Obama’s agenda? Barack Obama’s vision is about change. I don’t think there’s anything that he can do that would change the world better than this.
 
Visit americancenterforcures.org for more information.

Published: December 05, 2008
Issue: Winter 2008 - Annual Philanthropy Guide