Tuesday, November 23, 1999

Heloisa Sabin leads the way for a class act

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        What we heard last week, my fellow alert Cincinnatians, was the sound of the other shoe dropping. But not with the expected thud.

        Delta Air Lines announced it will spend $30 million to put its name on our convention center. When the plan first surfaced last June, there was an immediate outcry. Because, of course, the building already had a name. The Albert B. Sabin Convention Center was christened in 1986 to honor the man who invented the oral polio vaccine.

Setting them straight
        Delta officials insisted they wanted Dr. Sabin's name to continue to be associated with the convention center. Somebody suggested the “Sabin Convention Center sponsored by Delta Air Lines.” They just didn't understand, these business people. So the good doctor's widow, Heloisa Sabin, set them straight. Gallantly. Graciously. Firmly.

        It began with a series of letters, then telephone calls. A meeting was arranged. Dave Anderson, Delta's district director, flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with Mrs. Sabin. It was a mark of respect. Perfunctory at first, perhaps. Then with some genuine affection on both sides. They met again. Their families met.

        “This man, Mr. Anderson, I think he understands,” Heloisa Sabin said.

        And he did.

        It was not simply the widow clinging stubbornly to the idea of her late husband's name on the convention center. “I know Albert would want to do what is best for the people of Cincinnati,” she said. “This money is important to the city.”

        But at the same time, his name was not for sale. Ever. This was non-negotiable. “I always try to do what I think Albert would want,” Mrs. Sabin says. “Sometimes I am not sure. But I know that he would not like to have his name linked with a commercial enterprise.”

        And the people of Cincinnati would not like to lose our connection with this giant of medicine. We would not like to see his name treated disrespectfully.

        This, too, was non-negotiable.

        It could have been awful. Embarrassing. Venal. Mercenary. It was, instead, a model of diplomacy. Dave Anderson arranged for a meeting between Heloisa Sabin and the president of Children's Hospital Medical Center who would like to “strengthen the link between Dr. Sabin and the hospital.” Mrs. Sabin toured the construction site for the new state-of-the-art education and conference center at Children's.

        Very nice, she says. “Very near where Albert worked. Their enthusiasm was so like Albert's.”

A no-show
        Shortly afterward, the hospital announced that it would name the new center in Dr. Sabin's honor.

        A letter followed from Dave Anderson:

        “I hope you will agree the discussions that have taken place in recent weeks are a strong testimony to the character of the Cincinnati community and its leadership to work together in pursuit of "doing the right thing.'”

        And Mrs. Sabin replied:

        “Articles in the papers, e-mail, correspondence and calls I received in recent months assured me that the people of Cincinnati feel a bond. I was exhilarated by the support — I dare to say the love — they demonstrated for Albert. I feel a pressing need to convey to the Cincinnatians my ever-lasting gratitude.”

        Mrs. Sabin was not in the audience at the press conference Thursday announcing the deal Delta called a “growing partnership with Cincinnati.” A company has been hired to come up with a name that will give Delta the most bang for its 30 million bucks. This a commercial venture.

        Heloisa Sabin was at a lecture at the National Library of Medicine, where her husband's work was discussed. The world's sick children. And “letting people know how Albert has helped them.” That's where the widow has put her energy.

        And she has put her husband's name on a place for them. In Cincinnati, Ohio. This is where — in genuine tribute to the life of Dr. Albert Sabin — it belongs.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at laurapulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU radio.