The Give | From tragedy emerges an incredible legacy

From tragedy emerges an incredible legacy

Family and friends of John T. McMillan Jr. rally to raise more than $1 million to help cancer patients and strengthen cancer care.

When beloved Saint John shopkeeper John T. McMillan Jr. was diagnosed with a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, his doctors urged immediate and aggressive treatment.

Thank you notes from the many people impacted by John T. McMillan Jr. Memorial Foundations fundraising.

To say that he was shocked by the news would be an understatement.

He was just 34, busy with his growing business and family, staying active as a softball coach, and he felt well.

It seemed unfathomable that he had acute myeloid leukemia. He was determined to overcome it.

“He went in with a fighting attitude, courage and determination,” remembers his wife, Tana McMillan Morrison. “Right until the very end.”

Mr. McMillan died on Aug. 31, 2005 – 53 days after his diagnosis.

Outside the door of the Saint John Regional Hospital’s stem cell laboratory is a plaque with his name on it. For more than a decade, the lab has allowed doctors to treat patients in Saint John who would have otherwise had to travel to Halifax, Toronto or even the United States.

The stem cell transplant program is just one of a variety of investments by a foundation that sprung up in memory of Mr. McMillan, a grassroots effort by his family and friends to honour a man they loved and admired.

John T. McMillan Jr. with his son Taylor McMillan
John T. McMillan Jr. with his son Taylor McMillan.

Since 2006, the John T. McMillan Jr. Memorial Foundation has given more than $1 million to the Saint John Regional Hospital, primarily to help cancer patients and to fund world-class oncology care in New Brunswick.

“The John T. McMillan Foundation has had a tremendous impact on cancer care here at the Saint John Regional Hospital,” says Jamie Gallagher, President and CEO of the Hospital Foundation. “It is a force in driving innovation within the cancer care program.”

Most recently, the foundation helped the hospital buy a DNA sequencer. This sophisticated technology allows genetic testing on a patient’s cancer samples to develop more targeted therapies that are much less toxic and more effective than conventional treatment.

Along with impacting the lives of patients and their families, this technology has another advantage: helping the hospital recruit and retain top doctors and other medical professionals who want to work on the leading edge of care.

Dr. Terrance Comeau, an oncologist and hematologist at the Saint John Regional Hospital, says the hospital’s oncology care is world-class thanks to the investments by the foundation.

Jack and Mary-Lee McMillan stand at their family home with a photo of John and Cheri.

“We can offer anything that any other cancer centre in Canada or the U.S. can,” Dr. Comeau says. “It’s second to none.”

When she got the news of the diagnosis, Mr. McMillan’s sister, Cheri McMillan-Lumsden, took a leave from work and put her life on hold in Ottawa to come home.

“I just needed to be there,” she remembers.

Mr. McMillan had someone with him around the clock while he was in the hospital. Mrs. McMillan Morrison would spend the day with him, then Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden and her parents, Jack and Mary Lee McMillan, along with other friends and family, would cover the night shift.

As an oncology nurse, Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden’s medical knowledge and the advice she could offer was a comfort to family during treatment. But it also meant she understood just how dire her brother’s condition was.

“Even when he was sick, during that short time, he would tell us that when he was better, he wanted to help other people who were going through the same thing,” she recalls.

In the end, his conviction and determination were not enough. But it wasn’t long before his family and friends wanted to do something to carry on his wish.

“When John died, I remember my dad saying to me, ‘We have a choice: we can be bitter and angry, or we can keep his spirit alive and let him guide our lives,’” Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden says. “That’s when we wanted to start raising money.”

The John T. McMillan Jr. Foundation has had a tremendous impact on cancer care here at the Saint John Regional Hospital. It is a force in driving innovation within the cancer care program. - Jamie Gallagher, President and CEO of the Hospital Foundation

Jeff MacDonald, a close friend, joined with others who loved and admired Mr. McMillan to organize a steak-and-stein event at a local pub. Their fundraising goal was modest: raise a few thousand dollars to create a memorial bursary for a student at Simonds High School, Mr. McMillan’s alma mater.

The night of the fundraiser, the bar was packed and the donations poured in. An aunt’s “award-winning” (at least among the family) cinnamon buns fetched a $500 bid in the silent auction. Mr. McMillan’s cousins worked the room, selling hugs and kisses for $1.

“People just wanted to do something to carry on his spirit,” Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden says.

The steak-and-stein raised more than $17,000.

“We realized at that point,” Mr. MacDonald says, “that we needed to do something more than a bursary. We thought we could expand our pillars.”

From a humble fundraiser at a local pub, that effort has grown into a thriving philanthropic organization advancing cancer care in New Brunswick.

The John T. McMillan Jr. Memorial Foundation is as grassroots as they come.

“I love that it’s a family committed to doing this and working together to raise money,” says Jamie Gallagher of the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation. “That’s so unique and inspiring.”

The small but mighty board of directors comprises Mr. McMillan’s cousins and uncles, his sister and long-time friends like Mr. MacDonald.

While most foundations have an endowment fund from which they donate the interest from their investment returns, the John T. McMillan Foundation actively fundraises every year.

They started contributing to the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation the same year they were founded, in 2006, growing their support since then.

“We’ve gone from small donations and trying to raise a few thousand dollars for a scholarship to being major partners in The Give campaign at the Saint John Regional Hospital,” Mr. MacDonald says. “And here we are, more than 15 years later, and we’re reaching a major milestone.”

Members of the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation are joined by the McMillan family as well as members of the board past and present for the John T. McMillan Jr. Memorial Foundation for a ceremonial presentation to commemorate their $1-million lifetime giving achievement.

While John had a lot of support during his treatment, he and his family knew that was not the case for everyone.

“When patients are diagnosed with cancer, it turns their world upside down,” says Dr. Comeau, the oncologist.

For many, money worries only add to the stress.

Often, patients and their caregivers have to take time off or completely stop working during treatment.

The John T. McMillan Jr. Memorial Foundation started the Families Helping Families fund to help patients with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses cover rent, mortgage payments or other household bills. It can help pay for transportation, especially for patients travelling out of town or out of the province for testing or treatment. And it can help with the cost of medication and therapy that the healthcare system or private insurance don’t cover.

“It’s already the most stressful time of your entire life,” says Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden, who is witness to the chaos cancer can cause in her job as an oncology nurse. “And then to add financial worries on top of that, it’s too much.”

The memorial foundation has given more than $400,000 towards the fund, which is administered by the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation.

Dr. Comeau has seen its positive impact on countless patients.

“Families Helping Families has been instrumental in helping these patients and their families get through these troubling times,” he says.

To appreciate the tremendous commitment and support that fuels the John T. McMillan Foundation, one must understand how deeply the man memorialized by it was loved – not only by his family and friends but by people across Saint John and beyond.

He was well known, in no small measure, because of the convenience store he established in east Saint John.

When Little John’s Variety opened in 1995, it quickly became a popular spot for locals to grab their pop and chips, bread and milk. It wasn’t just convenience that kept them coming back, though – it was the uncommon welcome they got from the store’s namesake proprietor. Little John relished his role of shopkeeper.

Jeff MacDonald, chair of the John T. McMillan Jr. Memorial Foundation, left, leads a meeting with director Ken Dobson, right, and other members of the board to discuss updates.

“John was everybody’s friend,” his father, Jack McMillan, says. “He was a real people person.”

The store was staffed with local teens who went to his old high school, Simonds High. More than just a boss, he encouraged them to get an education beyond Grade 12 and to dream big.

“He mentored them,” says Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden, Mr. McMillan’s younger sister. “It wasn’t just a job. It was a family.”

Little John’s was active in the community, providing food for the local breakfast program and donating popcorn and treats for fundraisers at area churches and schools.

And Mr. McMillan helped keep the neighbourhood harmonious in little ways, too. One time, when an elderly woman expressed concern about local kids cutting through her property, Mr. McMillan offered to talk to them on her behalf. When it was cold outside, he invited people waiting for the bus to come inside the store to warm up. The driver would pull up and knock on the door.

“Bus is here!” Mr. McMillan would holler.

When he wasn’t working, he was with his young family – his wife, Tana, son Taylor and daughter Maggie–– and his large extended family that ran into dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles.

But before even opening Little John’s, Mr. McMillan already had a reputation as someone with a unique ability to rally others. He was legendary for the pub crawls he organized in Halifax during his university days.

Mr. McMillan was the type of person you just wanted to be around. It didn’t matter who you were – he made you feel important.

His love of fun was always tempered by a sense of caring and a desire to help. On Saturday mornings, he’d round up his university housemates to go to the library to help teach kids to read.

“He got a lot of joy from making other people feel better,” Mrs. McMillan Morrison says.

Even now, nearly 20 years after his death, his parents will hear stories from strangers who knew him. Last Halloween, a man who’d moved in up the street brought his daughter trick-or-treating at the McMillans’.

“I just had to come and meet you,” he told them. He’d played volleyball with Mr. McMillan and had happy memories of their time together on the team.

“After all these years, people still come to us to say that they remember him,” says Mary Lee McMillan, John’s mother. “It’s amazing.”

A few months after Mr. McMillan died, a local boy came to John’s parents’ house to share a poem he’d written in John’s memory. He called it Remembrance of a Friend.

John T McMillan Jr at his convenience store Little Johns Variety.

“Everybody’s friend, John, was gone,” he wrote, “but his memory will live on forever. I see him every time I see my street, John T. McMillan Avenue. I say, ‘Hi, John. How are you doing?’”

Little John’s Variety is still there, on what is now John T. McMillan Avenue. The street was renamed in his memory after community members petitioned City Hall to make the change following his passing.

Inside the bright and bustling store are a photo of Mr. McMillan, a plaque honouring his memory and a coin dropbox on the counter for donations to the memorial foundation that embodies Mr. McMillan’s community spirit and special knack for bringing people together for a good time and good cause.

The annual John T. McMillan Jr. Memorial Foundation casino night and dance has become a staple of the Saint John social calendar, a bright spot in the dark and cold of January.

“It’s like old home week,” says Mr. Gallagher – as much a reunion for Mr. McMillan’s friends and family as a fundraiser.

“John was always the centre of anything fun,” Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden says, and the event captures that vibe. “Just that energy in the room – you can definitely feel he’s there with you. It’s the closest I get to being with him again.”

Little “John details" are woven into the evening. Each year, there’s a T-shirt inspired by the tees he always made for the events he loved to organize.

They use the same simple logo – of a jolly, rotund monk holding a beer stein – that a friend of Mr. McMillan’s designed back in university for those legendary pub crawls.

“It’s fun to carry that on because he would have a T-shirt for everything,” Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden says.

Her brother did not like to dress up. Even at his wedding, she says he wanted to wear jeans. At the casino night, the men on the foundation board are easy to spot: they’re the ones wearing sports coats over T-shirts with jeans and white sports socks in honour of Mr. McMillan’s casual dress code.

Dr. Terrance Comeau, an oncologist and hematologist at the Saint John Regional Hospital
Dr. Terrance Comeau, an oncologist and hematologist at the Saint John Regional Hospital.

Live music is provided by Big Fish, the event’s resident band, which played at John and Tana’s wedding.

“We’ve just carried all that through,” Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden says.

She marvels at the creativity of her fellow directors in creating the event. One year it was a circus theme, complete with acrobats and fire jugglers. For a country-and-western concept, they brought in a mechanical bull for guests to ride. This year’s event, “Johnopoly,” which took place on Jan. 21 at the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre, had a board game theme.

“The sky’s the limit when it comes to the ideas these guys come up with,” says Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden, who joined the board as a director two years ago. “I’m just in awe of this group that has been doing it since the beginning. They never say never.”

Earlier this year, the board of Mr. McMillan’s foundation made an epic announcement at the casino-night fundraiser: they had met, and were blowing by, the milestone of giving $1 million to the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation to support cancer care in New Brunswick.

“It’s hard to process it,” Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden says. “A million dollars is a lot. It’s pretty special. It’s a milestone we’ve talked about for so long that finally getting there is incredible.”

John T. McMillan Jr. with wife Tana.

Along with their donations to the Saint John Regional Hospital through Families Helping Families and their gifts to the oncology department through Cornering the Cure, the memorial foundation has continued to give an annual bursary at Simonds High. They’ve also given to other campaigns, including a $100,000 donation in 2022 to the new Ronald McDonald House in Halifax.

The house provides a home-like environment for children and their families who must go to the IWK Health Centre for treatment. The new home will feature a special closet, funded by Mr. McMillan’s Foundation, where each child can select a superhero cape to give them a little extra strength and courage in a scary time.

In all, the foundation has raised and gifted more than $1.5 million to worthy causes since 2006. And all from the community.

“We don’t have a large group of corporate donors,” Mr. MacDonald says. “We deal with dimes and nickels that people save up to come to our event. We’ve managed to take those dimes and nickels and make them into a significant contribution to Saint John and the province.”

Every donation truly matters.

“Sometimes I hear people say, ‘I don’t have a lot to give; I only have $5, $10 or $50,’” Mr. Gallagher says. “Whatever the number, every little bit counts. Those contributions have a huge impact here at the hospital.”

That Mr. McMillan is so well and widely remembered is a great comfort to those who knew and loved him most.

“It’s overwhelming to be part of all the support and love after all these years since John’s passing,” Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden says. “People are still so passionate about keeping his legacy alive.”

Tana McMillan-Morrison and daughter Maggie look back and remember fondly the man that John T Jr. was through old photo albums.

For Mr. McMillan’s daughter, Maggie, who is in her first year in the nursing program at Dalhousie University and who lives in the same dorm her father did as a university student, the memorial foundation is a way to connect to the father she lost too young.

“To see the great work being done in my dad’s memory is really important to me,” Maggie says. “It makes me a proud daughter and proud of my dad’s friends and family members who have worked so hard to keep my dad’s spirit alive.”

And for all who knew and loved Mr. McMillan, his memorial foundation is an ongoing source of comfort and pride. As it helps others, it helps them, too.

“It takes a lot of the sadness away,” Mrs. McMillan-Lumsden says. “Instead of feeling angry and sad, we focus all that energy to try and help others.

“I think John would be so pleased that we could take such a tragedy and turn it into something so positive.”

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