MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Stung by the overwhelmingly negative reaction to removing the name of original “Saturday Night Live” cast member Gilda Radner from a cancer support group’s title, a Wisconsin chapter is borrowing one of the comedian’s catch phrases for its next announcement: Never mind.
Gilda’s Club Madison will remain just that, group leaders told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The board voted last week to keep the name after an avalanche of criticism in November when it announced it was switching to the more generic Cancer Support Community Southwest Wisconsin, in part out of concern that young people today were unfamiliar with Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989.
“It really struck a chord with folks and all of us agreed we want people to come to Gilda’s and get the help that they need,” said Wayne Harris, chairman of the board for the Madison chapter. “If this is what it takes to make that happen, we’re all as a group happy to make it happen.”
The intention of changing to a broader name was honorable, Harris said. “In retrospect, we probably should have thought that through or understood it more,” he said.
Anger over the name change, which was supposed to take effect this month, came from members of the local Gilda’s Club chapter, fans of Radner who saw it as a slight to a woman who confronted cancer with dignity and humor, leaders of other clubs who reaffirmed their commitment to keeping the name, as well as Radner’s husband, actor Gene Wilder.
“We started receiving emails right away,” said Lannia Stenz, director of the Madison chapter. “For the most part it was simply asking ‘Why did you do this? Please reconsider.’ It was really, truly passionate feedback. We had some people who were angry but at the base of everything it was the love of Gilda and her story.”
Reaction to the news led to a flurry of positive comments Wednesday on the Gilda’s Club Facebook page and on Twitter.
Ron Nief, a professor at Beloit College in southern Wisconsin who has made a career out of studying how generations view the world differently, said he was glad to know that Radner still resonates with people and has not been forgotten.
But Nief also said he thought the decision to keep the name was more about securing future donations and less about honoring Radner.
“They are an organization that does very good work and in order to do it they have to raise money and the name is related to their ability to raise funds,” Nief said.
Stenz, leader of the Madison chapter, said the potential loss of donations “was not as much of a factor in our decision to retain the name.” She said it was driven more by feedback from its board, Gilda’s Club members and people in the community.
Stenz and Harris said the goal of the name change was always about making clear the group’s mission, not to remove Radner’s memory.
“We were just talking about changing the name that we went by legally,” Harris said. While Radner would have still been a part of the organization, “in the end, they want to see Gilda’s name out front,” he said.
Paintings and drawings of Radner line the walls of the Madison-area chapter, which is located in the suburb of Middleton. One depicts her on top of Madison’s state Capitol. Another imagines her sitting along the shores of Lake Mendota on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
The meeting rooms are named after her “Saturday Night Live” characters, including New York-street smart reporter Roseanne Roseannadana; speech-impeded talk show host Baba Wawa, a parody of Barbara Walters; and out-of-sync editorialist Emily Litella who would say, “Never mind,” after being told of her confusion.
Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986. She sought support from The Wellness Community in California, and in 1991, her friends and family started Gilda’s Club on the East Coast to honor her legacy. The name was inspired by something Radner said after her diagnosis: “Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I’d rather not belong to.”
Gilda’s Club Worldwide merged with The Wellness Community in 2009, and the joint headquarters in Washington changed its name to the Cancer Support Community. Local chapters were given the choice of keeping their names or changing it. Of the 53 chapters worldwide, 23 are known as Gilda’s Club.
Together, the chapters deliver $40 million a year in free care to about 1 million cancer patients and their families, said Linda House, executive vice president of the national Cancer Support Community. The Madison chapter has about 2,200 members.
Stenz said she hoped the Madison community that Gilda’s Club serves will embrace its decision to keep the name.
As far as lessons learned from the experience, Harris had a simple takeaway: “We’re not changing our name again.”
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