Tragedy Leads To Comfort For Many

Ronald McDonald House

When the daughter of Fran and Fred Hill, a former Philadelphia Eagle, was diagnosed with leukemia, it led to the founding of the first Ronald McDonald House. Lawrence Tabudlo photo

It’s almost hard to believe that former Philadelphia Eagles star Fred Hill was once considered “shy,” but his wife Fran swears he was. As the couple sits with me at the Ronald McDonald House in Manoa, Fred talks almost nonstop about his passion and enthusiasm for football, Hawaii and the people who made the family-centered home possible.

Hill played tight end for University of Southern California and was named to the 1965 Hula Bowl team. He roomed with NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers during their all-star trips, and says the team stayed at the Moana Surfrider. “I remember Gale couldn’t swim, but we went out on an outrigger canoe, and we got dumped in the surf by a big wave. Gale had to hold on (until he was rescued.)”

The Hills were in Honolulu last week to take part in the 25th anniversary celebration of the Ronald McDonald House on Judd Hillside Road that has served as a home-away-from-home for the families of nearly 10,000 seriously ill children since its opening March 27, 1987.

There are now more than 300 such homes worldwide.

Fred and Fran’s daughter Kim was the inspiration behind the houses. Kim was only 3 years old, and Fred was playing for the Eagles when they received the devastating news.

“I came home (from a road trip) and the doctor started crying, telling us Kim had leukemia,” he says of the moment their world turned upside down. “You had to be at the hospital for hours. Fran was pregnant. It was so awful, so traumatic.”

“It was a different time back then,” Fran says. “There was no place for families to go for help, or just to rest.”

They got the idea to hold a fundraiser – a fashion show.

“I got up in front of the team and said we’d really like to have you guys come. We expected about 10 guys to show up,” Fred recalls. “Instead, everybody on the team came, including the owner Leonard Tose. We raised $10,000, which was a lot of money in those days.”

Tose and the Eagles organization were now hooked, and the Hills formed Eagles Fly for Leukemia.

“We passed the hat at a game and raised $25,000,” Fred says. The tradition of passing the hat continued at Eagles games for decades.

“We came back 10 years later and they presented us a check for $250,000,” Fran remembers.

“People give and they don’t expect anything in return but to help,” Fred says.

The idea for a house came from a well-known Philadelphia doctor who provided a wish list for the local children’s hospital. One of the items on the list was a home for the families of the seriously ill children. The local McDonald’s franchises jumped in to help, donating proceeds from its Shamrock shakes, and the homes were named after its mascot, Ronald McDonald. The first house was purchased in 1974.

“Ronald Houses are so great,” says Fran, who would watch her young daughter get better and help open Ronald McDonald Houses in Southern California. But nearly two decades later, fate turned on them.

“She got brain tumors, one as big as a softball,” Fred says.

With Kim undergoing treatment for brain cancer, the Hills stayed in the Ronald McDonald Houses in Orange County and Los Angeles. Kim passed away from the lingering effects of her original leukemia treatments just last year at the age of 44.

“Because of her, something good came of this,” Fran says.

Fred went on to own McDonald’s franchises in Orange County and recently completed a million-dollar renovation at his Mission Viejo store celebrating the Ronald McDonald House and Kim’s inspirational life.

“So many people have helped,” he says.

Kim Hill’s legacy continues with every family who stays at a Ronald McDonald House.

“It’s so comforting here,” says Fran. “It’s really a home.”