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Alas, there is no ‘Dr. Teddy’ at cancer center


It’s sad but, sadly, untrue. Don Ireland-Schunicht, senior vice president at Iowa Health Foundation, wishes it were true. The poignant story that has been circulating via e-mail for the past year or so moved him and others who read it to tears. Debunking the story has been painful. Alas, there is no “Dr. Teddy Stoddard” at the Stoddard Cancer Center on the Iowa Methodist Medical Center campus in Des Moines, something he’s had to say hundreds of times.

Even so, you might have heard of the fictitious Dr. Stoddard, if you bothered to open one of those aggravating e-mails clogging your inbox, the ones with the telltale subject line “Fwd.” Pastors have preached the moral of the story of Teddy Stoddard, some who have read of his tragic past have been moved to philanthropy, and a few people have even claimed to know the lad who was spiraling toward academic disaster and social despair until the benevolent “Mrs. Thompson” stepped in and provided support that set him on a path to a prestigious oncology position in the cancer wing of Iowa Methodist.

“It’s a wonderful story, and I got weepy when I read it,” said Ireland-Schunicht, so inundated by inquires about the e-mail that the detective in him tried to trace its origin. As best he can determine, “it sounds like two feel-good stories got merged into one,” he said.

The legend of Teddy Stoddard begins:

“As she stood in front of her fifth-grade class on the very first day of school, she told the children an untruth. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. However, that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.

“Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he did not play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and that he constantly needed a bath. In addition, Teddy could be unpleasant. It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then putting a big ‘F’ at the top of his papers.”

As she was reviewing her students’ files, what she found in Teddy’s surprised her. His first teachers found him bright, gregarious and a joy to teach, though his second-grade teacher noted he appeared troubled by his mother’s terminal illness. Later, teachers noted that following his mother’s death, Teddy’s relationship with his father deteriorated. By fourth grade, he was withdrawn and disinterested in school, had few friends and sometimes slept in class.

“By now, Mrs. Thompson realized the problem and she was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents, wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy’s. His present was clumsily wrapped in the heavy brown paper that he got from a grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when they she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one-quarter full of perfume. But she stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrist. Teddy Stoddard stayed after school that day just long enough to say, ‘Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mom used to.’

“After the children left, she cried for at least an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead, she began to teach children. Mrs. Thompson paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class and, despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one of her ‘teacher’s pets.’”

As the years passed, Mrs. Thompson received a series of letters from Teddy, each one crediting her with being “the best teacher ever” as he reached a significant milestone – graduating from high school third in his class, earning his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude, deciding to continue his education. Finally, 15 years after he’d won her heart in with a broken dime-store bracelet, Mrs. Thompson received a letter signed “Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D.”

Another letter followed that spring:

“Teddy said he had met this girl and was going to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit at the wedding in the place that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom. Of course, Mrs. Thompson did. And guess what? She wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. Moreover, she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together.

“They hugged each other, and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson’s ear, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Thompson, for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference.

“Mrs. Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back. She said, ‘Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.’”

Then, tacked onto the end parenthetically as if an afterthought, is this: “For those who don’t know, Teddy Stoddard is the doctor at Iowa Methodist in Des Moines that has the Stoddard Cancer Center.

Hospital officials say the e-mail has assumed a life of its own, gaining steam every few weeks or so, disappearing for a time and then resurfacing, evoking tears and passion wherever it lands. “We’ve received hundreds of e-mails from across the U.S. from individuals seeking to verify the story, many from teachers who want to share the information with their students,” said Joe Smith, director of corporate communications for Iowa Health-Des Moines, Iowa Methodist’s parent company.

The true story of the cancer center’s actual namesake is no less worthy of legend. Completed in 1991 as a wing to Iowa Methodist, it is named for John Stoddard, an engineer by training and real estate developer and entrepreneur by profession who amassed a huge fortune and gave most of it away. He often explained that the reason he worked so hard to make money was to have more to give away, Ireland-Schunicht said.

The $4 million Stoddard paid for naming rights to the cancer center was a fraction of the more than $34 million he and his wife, Lilyan, gave to Iowa Methodist over the years. In addition, the Stoddards donated more than $80 million to Des Moines charities, ranking them among the top philanthropists ever in Iowa, Ireland-Schunicht said. Lilyan Stoddard, who died last month, was also a “remarkable friend” of Iowa Methodist, Smith said.

Though Stoddard was diagnosed with cancer by physicians who used the equipment he had endowed, and he died of the disease in 1998 at the age of 86, “he and nobody else in his family ever had cancer [prior to his donation],” Ireland-Schunicht said. “He just wanted to make a gift, and saw this as a real and visible way to do it.”

Ireland-Schunicht said the Stoddard endowment has helped the inpatient facility maintain a ranking in the 95th percentile of hospitals nationwide. “It’s very highly regarded,” he said. “People in Des Moines have access to absolutely the best equipment and treatment anywhere.”

For example, the hospital will perform its first stereotactic radiosurgery procedure, using a new, highly accurate radiation therapy tool purchased with money from the Stoddard endowment. “So while we can’t hold up the fictitious Dr. Teddy as a role model for others, we can and do hold up the real Stoddard family,” Smith said.

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