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‘This is my campaign now’: Jack Quinn, family raising hundreds of thousands for Parkinson’s research

<i>The Buffalo News</i><br/>Jack Quinn works his math a little differently than most. In the mid-'90s and early 2000s
The Buffalo News
Jack Quinn works his math a little differently than most. In the mid-'90s and early 2000s

By Tim O’Shei News Staff Reporter

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    BUFFALO, New York (The Buffalo News) — Jack Quinn works his math a little differently than most.

In the mid-’90s and early 2000s, when he was a Republican congressman and running for reelection every two years, he took an upward-looking view on polling numbers and early returns.

“When you’re ahead (and have) 52% of the vote, and someone asked me, ‘How are you doing?’ I would say, ‘Well, we’re approaching 60,’ ” Quinn recalled a few days ago from his Hamburg home.

Why use a lower number when the higher choice will do just fine? You vocalize the bigger number – and then chase after it.

Quinn wielded that optimistic spin as a politician, and again now as a Parkinson’s disease patient and advocate. On a recent weekday afternoon, he was sitting in his home office talking about his quest to “put Buffalo on the map” for Parkinson’s research. He leaned back in a chair behind a large desk decorated with an engraved nameplate: “Mr Quinn, Chairman,” a relic of his days in the Capitol.

Joining the board of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research “is a good way for me to sort of wind up my public years,” said Quinn.

Framed photos of him with famous politicians hang on the wall adjacent to a series of images of Quinn, 71, and his younger brother Jeff, in boxing gear. Their expressions alternate between determined and playful, serious and compassionate. Both men have Parkinson’s, and have fought back against their disease, in part, through the Parkinson’s Boxing program in Kenmore and Hamburg.

His diagnosis, his network and his family are the reasons why Jack Quinn is still sitting behind a desk today, working a phone and chasing the numbers and feeling good about all of it – even as Parkinson’s continues to damage his nervous system, affecting his speech and movement.

Quinn, who is a board member of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, is hosting an Oct. 20 fundraiser at the Westin Buffalo. Called “A Buffalo Knockout of Parkinson’s,” the $100-per-head event features a panel discussion including Quinn; Parkinson’s Boxing founder Dean Eoannou; Mark Frasier, who is co-chief science officer at the Michael J. Fox Foundation; and Dr. Allison Brashear, an expert in movement disorders who is dean of the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The moderator is “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl, whose late husband Aaron Latham had Parkinson’s.

Quinn and his brother Mike, who is chief financial officer for Catholic Charities of Buffalo, have been calling friends and connections – a collective Rolodex built over the decades of Jack Quinn’s public life – to sell sponsorships and tickets. During a recent call with staff from the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Jack raised some bemused eyebrows when he said the Quinns were nearing a quarter-million dollars in money raised for the event.

He was talking like the optimistic politician, verbalizing what the numbers will likely be – not what they are.

Philanthropy professionals, it turns out, gravitate toward the precise.

“What did they say, 230?” Jack, smiling wide, asked Mike.

“Two thirty-five today,” Mike said, meaning that $235,000 has been raised so far. But with several days to go, he added, “We’ll probably exceed the 250.”

“Yes,” Jack said. “We will.”

Quinn was diagnosed in December 2014, when he was president of Erie Community College, and went public with his battle in an April 2019 Buffalo News story. He then joined the board of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, where he works with the organization’s senior public policy official to advocate for federal funding, public-private research partnerships, and to push for the creation of a Parkinson’s registry in New York. He hosted a fundraiser in early 2020 that raised $143,000, and the Oct. 20 event has already surpassed the $240,000 mark with a week to go.

“Jack’s legislative expertise coupled with his personal experience living with PD has helped amplify our research mission and policy priorities that matter for our community,” said Deborah W. Brooks, CEO and co-founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, in an email.

While Quinn’s work for the Michael J. Fox Foundation is national in scope, he focuses his broad efforts heavily on Western New York. He has advocated for Parkinson’s Boxing to be covered by health insurers. Quinn was encouraged last year when Brashear, whose expertise is neurology, was named dean of the UB medical school, which considers Parkinson’s work as a priority.

“For decades, Jacobs School researchers have been leading the effort to better understand and treat Parkinson’s disease,” Brashear said in an email. “Groundbreaking achievements from our scientists in potential stem cell therapies and strong collaborations between our researchers and clinicians are creating the powerful synergies that are going to lead to dramatic improvements in the lives of patients living with Parkinson’s.”

Quinn realizes, however, that the most groundbreaking treatments to come likely will help future patients but might be too late to help him. Helping make that happen, said his son Jack Quinn III, is “a real passion for him.”

Quinn III added, “If you asked my sister, or my mother, or any of our relatives or close friends of my father, this is pretty much the No. 1 thing he’s doing is Parkinson’s stuff. It’s the only thing he really talks about. It’s what gets him up in the morning.”

A year after going public with his Parkinson’s diagnosis, Jack Quinn has made it into something that, as a six-term congressman, he knows well: a

And keeps him up late. The younger Quinn, a lawyer and former politician who works as a lobbyist in Portland, Ore., says he’ll often get texts from his dad at 8 or 9 o’clock at night – deep into the night back east – asking about contacts, or for advice on how to approach certain people in the family’s network.

“It’s midnight in Buffalo and the guy is still up trying to figure out how to do this stuff, who to call,” said Quinn III, who is open about the impact Parkinson’s has had on his father over the last several years.

“He’s changed,” Quinn III added. “He’s not the same physically. He’s not the same, completely, from a capacity mentally as he was nine years ago. That’s the disease. It’s a debilitative, degenerative disease that every day takes a little bit more of you.”

But for the elder Quinn and any Parkinson’s patient, finding an active passion may also be therapeutic, especially when combined with a physical activity, like the boxing training Quinn does when he is physically able.

Markus Riessland, a molecular biologist at Stony Brook University whose research focuses on neurodegenerative diseases, pointed out that activities like solving Sudokus or crossword puzzles or engaging in telephone conversations – “an actual task for your brain” – have been proven helpful in combating aging. It promotes blood flow in the brain and improves “neuro connectivity in normal, aging patients.”

This impact still needs to be researched in Parkinson’s patients, Riessland said, but many scientists believe “that this training can be beneficial, and probably in combination with a physical training program.”

While Quinn’s work for the Michael J. Fox Foundation is national in scope, he focuses his broad efforts heavily on Western New York. He has advocated for Parkinson’s Boxing to be covered by health insurers.

For Quinn, that intellectual engagement involves the same skills he honed as a politician – calling a contact, engaging in some chat, and then pitching the initiative. He calls himself “incredibly lucky … to have family and friends who have supported my work without question.”

Decades ago, it was politics.

Now, it’s Parkinson’s.

When Quinn calls, people invariably ask he how’s doing. He answers, then steers the conversation toward his cause. He’ll say something like, “In fact, funny you should ask that question. I’m putting something together…”

And then he adds, “This is my campaign now.”

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