By Laura McAlister
When Karen Allen was approached 25 years ago to organize a fundraiser for the American Heart Association, she had no idea it would become one of the biggest events of its kind in the nation.
However, she’s not too surprised. The event started out with a fine group of women, she said, and continues to have a dedicated group who promote and plan the annual ball.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Heart Ball, hosted by the Heart Guild and presented by Wells Fargo. Since Birmingham’s first one in 1987, the ball has been one of the nation’s largest. It rounded out at No. 8 this year for heart association fundraisers.
“It really was such a big success from the very first one,” Karen said. “I look back on the people we recruited, and I knew it would be huge. The first year, it was a sellout.”
The Heart Ball is set for 6 p.m. March 3 at the Cahaba Grand Conference Center. This year’s honoree is James McManus, CEO of Energen and a longtime supporter of the American Heart Association.
In addition to McManus, the ball also will honor people like Karen, who helped to get it started in the first place.
“We’ll be doing some fun things to honor past Heart Guild presidents,” said Dottie Smith, owner of Edgar’s Bakery and chairman of this year’s ball. “We’ll have a video presentation. We’re really proud of the fact that this is one of the top 10 biggest (Heart Balls), and that’s really from all the efforts of the Heart Guild.
“We expect it to be a really wonderful evening.”
Karen said she was working for SouthTrust Bank when Don Lundy, her boss and president of the AHA, asked her if she could organize a ball.
She sought the help of friends Audrey Lindquist, Arlene Goldstein and Susan McCullough, and the first ball, then called the Heart Beat Ball, was held at The Club.
The organizers wanted it to be a fun event, and Karen said they succeeded.
“Back then people would come to those things in the black dresses and sit down and leave,” She said. “We really wanted this to be fun, and it was. I tell you we had people out there dancing until 1 in the morning.”
After the first ball, Karen, with the help of her three friends, recruited about 50 women to form the Heart Guild, which has hosted the event ever since.
Some 300 people attended the first ball. This year, around 900 are expected, Dottie said. During the ball’s 25-year history, about $123 million has been raised for the American Heart Association.
“I think that is really a testament to the giving nature of this community,” McManus said. “A lot of that money comes right back to the community, too, in the way of research. This is just a very worthy cause, and I’m honored they chose me on this 25th anniversary.”
As always, this year’s event will be black tie. In addition to a cocktail hour and seated dinner, the ball includes live entertainment and a silent and live auction. Emceeing the event are Alabama 13’s Pam Huff and Gene Hallman.