The country music station WBKR has captured the hearts of listeners in and beyond Owensboro for the last 14 years with its two-day Country Cares Radiothon for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The Radiothon, however, is not just a two-day on-air event; it is a two-week long project of the heart that takes an entire year and community to plan. New, inspiring t-shirt designs are created, musical guests are secured, tiny tots are prepared to look pageant perfect, and smokers are fired up, all while true stories of inspiration and heartache are played across the airwaves. Last year, the station raised $203,000 in two days, with over 25% of that coming from the hard work and dedication of Jerry Morris and the Angels for Ashley cooking team. WBKR morning show host Chad Benefield says that they savor the moment when the team, “Comes into the studio smelling like meat, and dumps a bucket of money onto the floor,” as they all celebrate through tears of joy and announce the total on air.

Jerry Morris has been in the construction business for 35 years, but some may say he has been in the “angel” business over half as long. For the last twenty years, he has been hosting dances and barbecues where church cooking teams pay entry fees to compete, helping him to raise thousands of dollars in donations to support Trinity High School. Seven years ago, Jerry began constructing a home for wheelchair-bound Ashley Johnson for ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. When the house was not selected for the show, Jerry decided to take to the smoker in order to raise the remaining funds for completion. Following an incredible outpouring of support, Jerry found himself with an additional $50,000 and a namesake for his new charity. Jerry now uses the money from the Angels for Ashley fund to purchase the necessary cooking supplies to help families facing health crises in Whitesville, Owensboro, and across the tri-state area.

For the last five years, Jerry and the Angels for Ashley cooking team have been tirelessly cooking for the St. Jude Radiothon at their Town Square North Shoe Stop location. While Jerry does not recall exactly how it all began, he does know that the 50 hours (two full days with approximately two hours of sleep per night) he puts into cooking are nothing in comparison to those sweet children who are fighting for their lives. Jerry says, “It is rough, but I enjoy it. People with cancer aren’t going to quit just because they’re tired, so why should I?”

Last year, Chad invited Jerry and his wife to join WBKR staff and listeners on the trip to St. Jude so that he could see firsthand where all of his hard work goes. Jerry quickly recognized the importance of his efforts and recalls seeing a little girl with only “six or seven hairs on the top of her head, but she had the prettiest smile. She was dying, but she was happy.” During his visit, Morris learned that it takes $860 million a year, or about $2.5 million a day, to keep the lights on at St. Jude. Jerry says that his prayer now, as he prepares to meet his goal this year of $75,000 is, “Lord, I hope I turned the lights on for 15 minutes today.”

“He would do anything for anybody. He’s an angel on earth,” – Shannon Payne, a five-year member of the Angels for Ashley cooking team, speaking about Jerry Morris.

Jerry’s commitment to cooking over the last five years has been unwavering, as he has battled bad knees, record amounts of snow, and sometimes just pure exhaustion. While Jerry is a true example of what it means to have a servant’s heart, he will be the first to tell you that every Boston butt or chicken cooked is the result of a team effort. As far as how he decides how much food to order, he prays about the amount and then places the order about three weeks in advance from CRS (who charges him just five cents above cost), hoping that it will be enough to satisfy the need. Morris says that it takes about 15 people to cook the Boston butts, 8-10 people to cook fish and assemble boxed lunches, and 2-3 people to cook the baked beans. These numbers don’t even take into account wrapping and distributing food, and money collection. All told, it takes approximately 40 people over the three-day period to pull off a successful cook. This year Jerry is excited to add committed St. Jude supporter twelve-year-old Gavin Howard, and six-year-old Easton Pedley, as new Angels for Ashley cooking team members.

Jerry is incredibly thankful for the selfless acts of those around him, from Matt Castlen, who built and donated a $10,000 smoker two years back, to the volunteers that take time away from their lives and their jobs to help support the cause. Morris says, “We all work, so most people have to take vacation days off work” to be able to help. Shoe Stop owner Mark Shively is one of the many individuals that rallies around Jerry each year to help support his efforts. Mark is proud that his store can be a small part of something that “gets bigger and bigger every year…and has evolved into a community event, rather than a cook-out.”

While Jerry has countless businesses and individuals that back his efforts each year, it is remarkable what a reciprocal relationship Jerry and WBKR have. WBKR afternoon radio host Dave Spencer bundles up from head to toe in cold weather gear as he broadcasts live from Shoe Stop for the majority of the two-day timeframe. The station has now added a second, satellite location at Norman McDonald’s Country Drive-in in Philpot, where Barb Birgy broadcasts as well. For the past two years, the restaurant has graciously committed to replace their normal menu on Radiothon Thursday with Jerry’s barbeque, and donate 100% of the proceeds to St. Jude. Jerry says, “It is unbelievable how much the radio helps me. People will come from Henderson just to get a Boston butt.” Chad Benefield echoes his sentiments saying, “Jerry is probably the most selfless person I have ever met. I can’t imagine our Radiothon without Angels for Ashley being a part of it. They are a huge part of our St. Jude family.”

How You Can Help Support St. Jude – Upcoming WBKR St. Jude Fundraising Events:
  • Denim and Diamonds Benefit, Friday, February 3 at 7pm at the Theatre Workshop’s Empress Theatre. General admission tickets are just $10 per person, and a limited number of V.I.P. tickets are available as well for $25.
  • Sweatin’ for St. Jude, Monday, February 6. This year Chad and Angel will keep the crazy fun going with a 24-hour workout at the Owensboro YMCA.
  • Cuties for a Cure Beauty Pageant, Saturday, February 11, Livermore.
  • Angels for Ashley Radiothon and Cookout, February 16 and 17, Shoe Stop at Town Square North.

For more information on any of these events, visit the station website at wbkr.com.

*This article first appeared in Feb ’17 Owensboro Living magazine.