Boomer Esiason Foundation Volunteer Jerry Cahill on May 7 received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, awarded annually to American citizens of diverse origins for their outstanding contributions to their communities, their nation and the world.
The Ellis Island Medal of Honor is sponsored by the National Ethnic Coalition (NECO) to pay tribute to the ancestry groups that comprise America’s unique cultural mosaic. The Medals are presented in a dramatic ceremony on Ellis Island, the gateway for millions of immigrants to the United States from 1892 to 1954 and the symbol of American immigration and the immigrant experience.
A Deserving Recipient
When Jerry Cahill was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis in 1967 at the age of 11, doctors advised his parents that his chances for living a long and productive life were almost nonexistent. Today, more than 40 years later, Jerry has proven he can beat the odds, and at the age of 54 is an inspiration to others in the cystic fibrosis community.
Sitting on the sidelines was not an option in the rough-and-tumble Cahill family, even for a boy with a serious respiratory disease. Jerry’s parents encouraged him to stay active and keep up with his five siblings, and he learned early on that regular exercise helped keep his lungs clear and working. It’s a lesson Jerry carried with him from his home in Brooklyn to the University of Connecticut, where as a student-athlete he competed in the pole vault and earned a bachelor’s degree in educational psychology in 1978.
Upon graduating cum laude from UConn, Jerry embarked on a career in New York’s apparel industry, working in a variety of sales and management positions and eventually being named Vice President of Sales for Joseph Abboud Sportswear. He continued to maintain an active lifestyle and competed as pole vaulter for the New York Athletic Club, where he achieved a personal best of 16’ 10 ¾”. But after 27 years in the apparel business, the grueling schedule and constant stress began to take its toll, and Jerry decided it was time to refocus his energies.
In 2004, Jerry began volunteering for the Boomer Esiason Foundation. Soon, he was involved in managing the Foundation’s scholarship and transplant grant programs, and eventually, he was tasked with developing additional programs geared toward the CF community. Under his leadership, BEF launched the Team Boomer – Fighting Cystic Fibrosis athletic program, as well as the Exercise for Life scholarship for CF student-athletes. Jerry’s ultimate goal is ensuring that exercise and therapy compliance become a way of life for all people with CF.
In addition to managing these programs, Jerry hosts a series of podcasts focusing on cystic fibrosis. These in-depth, no-nonsense personal interviews with people from all walks of life cover topics ranging from the importance of exercise to family relationships to career challenges. They’re consistently voted the top podcasts in the health genre, providing information and inspiration to CF families around the country. Jerry also speaks regularly at CF care centers, meetings and conferences, where he shares his life story with frankness and encourages others to find their own ways to stay committed to exercise and compliance.
Through it all, Jerry maintains his competitiveness as an athlete. He cycles, jogs and lifts weights regularly, has twice run the New York City marathon, has participated in two Westchester Toughman Half Iron Distance events, and continues to compete in pole vault events in the masters division. He also shares his track and field expertise as the pole vault coach for a prep school in New Rochelle, N.Y. In short, he is more active than many people half his age.
The secret to Jerry’s success? Attitude, grit and determination. “Living with CF is like being in a battle zone during war time,” he said. “There will always be many tough challenges to face, but you just have to do your best and be prepared to keep on fighting,” he added. “And remember that your fellow soldiers – family and friends – are always there to back you up.”
Jerry joins a prestigious group of honorees. Past Ellis Island Medal of Honor recipients include six Presidents of the United States, Nobel Prize winners, athletes, leaders of industry, artists and others whose work has made a lasting impact on humanity. Some previous Medalists include: U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist; Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell; Sen. John McCain; Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell; Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno; Emilio & Gloria Estefan; Lee Iacocca; Dr. Michael E. DeBakey; Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao; Rosa Parks; Elie Wiesel; Frank Sinatra; Bob Hope; Opera diva Renee Fleming; Yogi Berra; Muhammad Ali; Arnold Palmer; Tom Brokaw; Walter Cronkite; Barbara Walters; Mike Wallace; Quincy Jones; Jane Seymour, Siegfried & Roy, and Gary Sinise.
The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have officially recognized the Ellis Island Medals of Honor, and each year the recipients are listed in the Congressional Record. To date, more than 1,800 American citizens have received Ellis Island Medals of Honor.