Bill Elliott, of Egg Harbor Township, is creator of the Ensign John R. Elliott Hero Campaign for Designated Drivers. The campaign is named for Elliott’s son, who was killed by a drunken driver in July 2000. Elliott also just recently retired as executive director of the Shore Medical Center Foundation.
Q: You started the HERO Campaign in the fall of 2000, right after your son passed away. So, what was that like, kind of embarking on this major initiative while you were still in your grieving process?
A: We had to figure out how we were going to live the rest of our lives in a way that would honor him, maintain as much normalcy in our lives as we could have, particularly for our daughter, Jennifer, and still, maybe, be inspirational. You know, something to give us a goal. And so we came upon the HERO Campaign because John had been named the Hero of the Year at the Naval Academy, which was an acronym standing for Human Education Resource Officer. He was a peer advocate for his fellow shipmates. And he had been named the Hero of the Year just before he graduated.
And so we took that concept of the HERO and then we applied it to the designated driver, who could have driven home the person that ended up killing our son; someone who had been arrested by police, released to a friend who drove him back to his car, put him back behind the wheel instead of driving him home. If that person had driven him home, he would have been a hero to us. He would have saved his friend’s life and our son’s life. And that’s what we focused on, was the designated driver. That’s the key to preventing drunk driving tragedies. So, it has not been an easy road to go down. It’s certainly one that still has pain attached to it, but it enables us to talk about our son in a very positive way that makes other people comfortable, too; that it’s about the campaign and his legacy.
Q: And what do you remember about July 22nd, 2000, the day your son John died?
A: John was coming up. It was his mother’s birthday. We had a riverboat reserved for a party that night, the next night. He wanted to come up. He had his girlfriend with him. He wanted to go to the beach during the morning and then be there for the party.
And we had a knock at the door at four in the morning, two police officers telling us our son was gone, he had been killed in a collision with a drunk driver. Boom. Just like that. And your whole life passes before you. Immediately, I was trying to make a deal with God to take me and not my son. It was the kind of things that — irrational things that you think about.
That morning, we were talking with the Delaware Valley Gift of Life organization about which organs, which of John’s organs, we were going to donate. From a wonderful, joyous occasion, my wife’s birthday, to one as awful as you can possibly imagine within hours was what we were thrown into. ... But even then, we knew that we had to do something to honor our son ... it was even in the middle of our grief, knowing that if we could give his organs to somebody as a gift; (and) we could give his life as a gift through the HERO Campaign and save lives by promoting designated drivers. And that’s what we’ve done, we hope.
Q: And how did you learn the circumstances of the crash and what kind of spurred this campaign?
A: We learned it, really, when the police came and told us that he’d been killed by a drunk driver. We then talked to the State Police and found out that the drunk driver had been arrested earlier. And a Press reporter filled us in with the details that day. This was a Saturday morning when all this happened. And then we started getting other information the same day.
And I remember the Press reporter asking me, “How do you feel about the circumstances? Are you angry?” And I said, really, anger was not the emotion that we were feeling, it was just profound sadness. It wasn’t anger at what happened to our son, it was the loss of our son that we were feeling and what that meant to us. And a lot of people say “I can’t imagine what you must feel like, I can’t imagine what it would be like.” I believe people can imagine it.
It’s the worst thing you can imagine. And that’s why we’re working so hard to prevent this from happening to other people. We’ve encountered other victims of drunk driving, other families. And you see that — that stare, that vacant look, that “How could this have happened to us?” look in their eyes. And you don’t ever want to see that again in people. So, I think we’re gaining traction. It’s been 12 years now. But, I think people understand that it’s a program that can make a difference. It’s a program that can change behavior, get people to use designated drivers. And no one wants to get that knock on the door at four in the morning.
Q: How did that sadness translate to action? When did you make the decision that something had to be done about the way New Jersey handles DWIs?
A: Well, there were two things. We knew we wanted to do something to honor John, and so I’d say within weeks we had the idea of the HERO Campaign already in place. But we also were talking to our state legislators at the time about the circumstances that laws could have prevented.
When people heard that the person arrested had been released and that his car had not been impounded, they say, “How could that happen?” I thought it was just automatic that you held the suspect until they sobered up or you held the car. Well, there weren’t laws that covered either situation. (Our legislators) introduced legislation, which passed very quickly, almost in record time. It’s now called John’s Law. It was passed in 2001. And it requires police to impound the cars of drunk drivers — suspected drunk drivers, for up to ... 12 hours. And there are about 30,000 arrests every year now for drunk driving. And so there’s 30,000 cars impounded.
Q: Beyond the enforcement measures and beyond the community involvement, there’s also a culture of drinking and driving, particularly here in South Jersey. How do you change the minds of people who do drink and drive, especially young people?
A: The answer is, one person at a time, one message at a time, one commercial at a time, one event at a time, one billboard at a time, just to remind people the price of drinking and driving is way too high. Somers Point has a little sign when you come into (the city), and it says: “If you drink, it’s your business, if you drive, it’s ours.” Now, that’s kind of a stick. That’s saying, you know, we’re out there, looking for you, if you get arrested, you know — there’s commercials that say it’s expensive, it’s on your record. Not to mention the fact that you could hurt or kill yourself or somebody else. So, we think there are deterrents out there, but we think we also are appealing to the hero in people. And most people, we think, are reasonable and realize that, you know, if I’m going to go out and have a good time and it includes alcoholic beverages, I can have somebody drive me home.
Q: Twelve years into the campaign, what do you think has worked and what hasn’t?
A: I think it’s more of an uphill climb than we thought. Everyone realizes what’s at stake. The beer companies work with us; Coors, Budweiser, Miller’s. And every alcohol company, at the end of their commercials, always has “drink responsibly.” The difference between that message and our message is we don’t tell people to drink responsibly; we tell them, if you’re drinking, make sure you have a ride. So, we don’t get into the issue of how much you should or shouldn’t drink. Do I think we can end drunk driving? Yes, I do. I think, if you can end smoking in public places, if you can get people to wear seat belts, you can get them to have a safe ride home. Whether we can get them to stop drinking more than they should is another matter.
Q: What differences are there in those two messages and why do you think your message is more effective?
A: Because the people that are asking you to drink responsibly also want you to buy their product. We’re not selling anything. All we’re selling is safety. We’re a nonprofit community organization, founded by a family of a drunk driving victim. And our message is, it’s not worth it to drink and drive, even if you are drinking responsibly.
Q: How are you able to get this message beyond New Jersey?
A: Several ways. Through law enforcement. Law enforcement has been the biggest supporter of what we’re doing. And, you know, we are helping them do their job as well. And so Rick Fuentes, for instance, the superintendent of the State Police, took us down to Washington, to Alexandria, (Va.), for the National Conference of State Superintendents of State Police, and we gave a presentation to all 50 states, and now they’re following up with this.
Also, through sports teams. We work with the Phillies and the Giants, the Jets. We work with the Patriots, in Boston, who have set an NFL record by signing up 23,000 designated drivers at Gillette Stadium last season. And they continue to be a big supporter of the campaign.
Through municipalities. We were on The Today Show about John’s Law. We got a call from a councilman in Boston, who said “Can we adopt John’s Law in Boston?” So, through some of the media coverage we’ve received and through law enforcement and through the sports and professional teams is a way that we’ve gone beyond New Jersey.
Q: Did you ever imagine that you’d be using the skills that you picked up working to publicize Atlantic City and Shore Medical Center for something so personal?
A: You know, I’ve thought about that. In a unique way, I’ve been prepared my whole life with the skills to do the HERO Campaign and to build the HERO Campaign. I’m just sad that it had to be using those skills for something so personal and so tragic. But, at the same time, if you have to lose a child, to have something that can save lives and help other people is a good use of your skills. And so that inspires us. It keeps us going, quite frankly.
You know, long ago, some people that had lost a son and a daughter told us to just keep busy, that was the best way to cope with your loss. And so we’ve been busy. Lord knows we’ve been busy.
I think ... coming up with a brand like the HERO Campaign utilized some of my marketing and PR skills. But it’s been a good brand. It’s been a good message. It’s been a simple one. It’s been one people relate to. We thought, “Oh, is the word “hero” overdone?” We don’t think so. And we think it definitely applies in this case to someone who drives somebody home and prevents a tragedy.
Q: This summer, the HERO Campaign has targeted the beach towns of the Jersey shore with that program in which participating bars give free soft drinks to designated drivers. Why did you target the Jersey shore and, so far this summer, has it been a success?
A: We thought the Jersey shore was a particular entity people related to, both from the fact that it’s just an obvious place people come to have fun during the summer, to the Jersey Shore MTV program, which portrays it in not a great light, and we thought maybe we could turn that around as a focal point for our program ... let’s just target the shore because that’s where everyone’s going to be this summer, and then they’ll see the posters, they’ll see the billboards and they’ll relate to it.
We have 150 bars that have signed up. We think most of them are serving the free soft drinks. We check with them all the time. We think they like the program. I’d like to think it’s kind of a seal of approval, if you will, to have that little decal on your door. We’re going to keep doing it. Next year, we believe that number is going to continue to grow.
Q: The lesser-known John’s Law II was passed in 2003, allowing police to detain suspected drunken drivers — in addition to their cars — for up to eight hours, but it hasn’t been implemented in all municipalities. What obstacles has this law faced and what needs to be done to allow for its implementation?
A: Well, we’d like to take another look at that law. And I’ve been talking to some legislators about, perhaps, amending it. The problem is that many police departments do not have cells, jail cells. And there are some requirements that if you do incarcerate a drunk driver, that you have to check on him periodically to make sure they’re OK; that they don’t vomit, they don’t get sick. And so most police departments do not have the personnel to devote to “baby-sitting” a drunk driver.
This law allows municipalities to decide if they want to adopt the law or not, and only six have, that we’re aware of. Somers Point has and thinks it’s working fine. We think, if we use a countywide approach and perhaps have the sheriff’s office use part of the county jail as a holding area for people that are arrested under John’s Law II, that that could work.
Q: You recently retired after years as executive director of the Shore Medical Center Foundation. In those years, what are you most proud of?
A: We built several buildings and modernized a number of facilities during the 24 years I was there; new emergency room, new maternity room, new Intensive Care Unit. We built a new cancer center, totally with money donated by the community. And, of course, lately, the latest addition was this brand new surgical pavilion through $125 million dollar investment, and $20 million of that came from the community. We built a state of the art surgical center for the region. So, I’m proud of all those accomplishments. I’m proud of the team that we have in the foundation at Shore that organized all of this with me. And the community itself, which I think believes in the hospital and takes some ownership for its success.
Q: You’ve said that fundraising has increased from $300,000 to more than $4 million per year during those two decades. How did that support grow from within the community?
A: I think we’ve gotten on the short list of most people’s donation list, which was really our goal. Then we added another element to it, called the Lightkeeper’s Society, which is kind of an upper level giving program that added even another element to the Stainton Society, with gifts in excess of $5,000 a year. So, what we found is, as we upped the bar and asked for more and bigger contributions, people responded.
Q: And what does Shore Medical Center’s tremendous growth physically and financially mean for this region? What does it mean for South Jersey?
A: We think that having state of the art health care is extremely important. Not just so you don’t have to go to Philadelphia, although it’s nice to be local, but to know you’ve got a resource that has what you need when you need it is very important to people. I think it’s important in attracting people to our area who are of retirement age. Health care is a big factor for someone in their 50s, 60s and 70s. I think, as we grow and become more attractive as a retirement area, health care is going to be a big part of that. I think it’s just showing that the sophistication of health care is keeping up with the sophistication of our area; that we’re not just a summer resort, we’re a year-round area.
Q: And what are your chief objectives for the HERO Campaign now that you have more time to dedicate to it?
A: Well, we certainly want it to grow, and we’re working with all those different constituencies that I spoke of; the law enforcement, schools and colleges, bars and taverns and sports teams, which we think is a nice mix to keep it growing. We expect to have more events to involve people in the campaign, help raise money for the campaign and gain exposure on more of a regional basis than just our local area.
We’ve done polls that have shown that almost a hundred percent of the people in Atlantic County know about the HERO Campaign, but you go a couple of counties over, it drops dramatically. So, law enforcement, we think, is a key to getting that message out. But we intend to have more events in other states, not just in New Jersey, that will elevate the awareness for the campaign.
Q: Are there any other projects or activities that you plan to get more involved in?
A: Well, I’m already on the board of the Atlantic County Ethics — I’m on the Atlantic County Ethics Board. And I also am on the Egg Harbor Township Economic Development Commission, which has a meeting at 12 o’clock I’ve got to get to. So, those are two activities outside of the hospital and outside of the HERO Campaign. Whether that grows, I don’t know.
Q: What did you do this July 22nd?
A: We always put flowers at the memorial for our son in our backyard and we always say a prayer for him. It is one of those bittersweet times where it’s two days after my wife, his mother’s, birthday. We shed a tear, we said a prayer. But our daughter just had our second grandchild. So, there’s always a mixture of joy and happiness and sadness at this time of the year. But, we got cards from his friends from all over the world.
Q: And what kind of man do you think he’d be today?
A: I think he’d be a wonderful young man with a family. I think he’d be giving to his nation through his service. He looked forward to serving his country. We often say that he’s still serving his country through the HERO Campaign. So, I think — I hope he would be proud of what we’ve done in his name, but I know we’d be proud of whatever he was doing had he lived.
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