Joe Frank Sanderson Jr. steps into the spotlight to support Batson Children's Hospital
By Jennifer Hospodor
When Joe Frank Sanderson Jr. walked onto the 18th green to present the winner of the Sanderson Farms Championship with a trophy, his daughter, Katy Sanderson Creath, was so overcome with pride that tears welled up in her eyes.
Sanderson, second from left, talks with Dr. Rick Barr, Suzan B. Thames Professor and Chair of Pediatrics, left, while touring the Croft Cardiac Intensive Care Unit with Dr. Mary Taylor, professor of pediatrics, chief of the Division of Pediatric Critical Care and co-director of the Children's Heart Center, second from right, and Dr. Owen B. Evans, professor and chair emeritus of pediatrics.
Sanderson was all smiles in his seersucker pants and navy sport coat as he walked out in front of hundreds of people, television cameras and photographers aimed his way. Truth be told, he prefers to support his community in a much quieter way, but there is a reason he was comfortable with all the attention that accompanies such a major philanthropic role – he knew it was the right thing to do.
For Sanderson, doing the right thing meant asking his company, Sanderson Farms, Inc., to step in as the title sponsor of the faltering PGA tournament that brings an estimated $22 million to the state and benefits Batson Children’s Hospital.
Losing the tournament “would’ve been bad for Mississippi,” said Sanderson, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of the company.
Considering the economic impact on the Jackson metro area and the hospital itself, Sanderson said, “I thought it would be the right thing for our company to do... If you do the right thing, it’s good for the corporation and the shareholders.”
It’s also good for the children of Mississippi, a detail Sanderson has emphasized in interviews about the tournament. He mentioned on several occasions that having Batson as a beneficiary was a driving force behind his decision to even ask the board of directors to consider the sponsorship.
However, he insists his personal experiences with Batson Children’s Hospital while visiting his granddaughter while she was a patient there, have nothing to do with his decision.
“For the children of the state, we have a responsibility for them as well.”
Thirteen-year-old Sophie, Creath’s daughter and one of Sanderson and his wife Kathy’s six grandchildren, has been hospitalized at Batson for chronic hereditary pancreatitis, a disorder that causes persistent inflammation and interferes with normal functions of the pancreas. Sanderson and Kathy visited each of the three times she’s been hospitalized.
“It’s the perfect environment for a child, she was sick but she wasn’t afraid,” he said.
Sanderson, front row second from left, listens as Governor Phil Bryant, front row, right, addresses the crowd at the Sanderson Farms Championship. Winner Woody Austin, front row second from right, and John Lang, Century Club Charities president, front row, left, look on.
“You know what’s cool about it is that Batson has a vision for more and that’s what I want to see – them not being static but continuing to grow and adding on.”
That vision is the new building being planned for the space adjacent to the current children’s hospital building. Among other things, the new building will house a new lobby and clinical space for the Children’s Heart Center including surgical suites, a cardiac intensive care unit and an imaging center.
“I like that. Batson is one of a kind in Mississippi. Because it’s one of a kind, I think it warrants special support,” he said.
John Lang, president of Century Club Charities, the tournament’s host organization, said Sanderson’s passion and commitment are genuine.
“He is the real deal. His involvement with the tournament begins and ends with the children that will benefit from the incredible work being done at Batson Children’s Hospital.”
Lang called Sanderson in January 2012 about becoming the title sponsor for the tournament, which has been part of the PGA tour since 1968. Lang said prayers were answered when Sanderson and Sanderson Farms’ board of directors said yes.
“His commitment involves not only a big sacrifice of his time but that of his family, their name, their company, and his incredibly talented team that leads Sanderson Farms,” Lang said.
Dr. Paul Parker, professor emeritus of pediatrics and the pediatric gastroenterologist who diagnosed Sophie, said the things Sanderson does are always done for the right reason.
“He’s the kind of person that is reserved about his personal life and he is very generous and sincere and dynamic regarding his public participation in things he believes in such as Children’s Hospital,” said Parker.
Sanderson is also very candid about his belief that Batson is not the only organization that warrants community support.
He and Sanderson Farms have championed various educational funds at the University of Mississippi Medical Center as well, including the Paul H. Parker, M.D. Chair in Pediatric Gastroenterology. Many other colleges and universities throughout the state have also benefited from generous donations from the Sandersons – there are buildings inscribed with the Sanderson name at two of them.
Sanderson Farms has a long history of supporting a multitude of community needs ranging from product donations to angel flights to hurricane relief efforts, all of which are carried out, according to the company, “because it is the responsible and right thing to do.”
The sentiment, an echo from its founders, has been the company’s – and Sanderson’s – foundation since its humble beginning as a feed and seed store. Those founders, Sanderson’s grandparents, father and uncle, have been quietly giving back to the communities in which they operate and live ever since.
After graduating from Millsaps College in 1969, Sanderson joined the family business. In 1989, he became president and CEO and began growing the organization into what is now Mississippi’s largest public company, with more than 11,000 employees and more than $2.5 billion in sales.
He and Kathy have three daughters who were imbued with the same sense of responsibility to the community that permeates Sanderson and the company.
Creath recalled a visit from her parents just weeks after she gave birth to Sophie.
“Here I was with a new baby and Dad tells me I needed to get out of the house and do something to give back to the community,” Creath said.
She has honored this family tradition in many ways, including serving on the board of Friends of Children’s Hospital following Sophie’s diagnosis.
Friends, named the primary beneficiary of the tournament in 2008, had received nearly $375,000 from the Century Club Charities, but proceeds diminished in the years prior to Sanderson Farms’ sponsorship.
When asked how he felt about the tournament’s success, Sanderson said his first concern and that of the board of directors was to get money to the hospital.
“You evaluate it in a lot of different ways,” Sanderson said. “If you look at it on different levels, that was job number one. It hadn’t been done in a while and we got that done.”
Although the exact donation was not available at press time, Sanderson declared that Friends was going to get “a nice check.”
Other measures of success – economic impact on the state and return on investment for the company – Sanderson admitted are harder to measure.
Lang was thrilled with the results and turnout.
“There was great energy, which I think we can really build on,” Lang said.
A few months removed from the first and, by all accounts, successful event, Sanderson Farms recently signed on to continue the title sponsorship for the next three years.
Some important changes are taking place that Sanderson hopes will help the event grow, including increasing the purse from $3 million to $4 million and moving the dates from July to late October.
“That hospital is a statewide hospital and somehow in the next three years, we want this to be a statewide event,” Sanderson said.
That is Sanderson’s vision for the tournament. He believes it can be bigger and better, which would mean many more sponsors, spectators and cameras watching him present that trophy.