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Bill Gavin, who is expected to be inducted into the Walk MS Fundraising Hall of Fame later this year, poses with his "Band of Beauties" who join him each year. From left are daughter Maryellen Didden; granddaughter Amanda Grove, granddaughter Brianna Gunther, Gavin, daughter Kriss Grove, and daughter-in-law Cathy Gunther.
Bill Gavin, who is expected to be inducted into the Walk MS Fundraising Hall of Fame later this year, poses with his "Band of Beauties" who join him each year. From left are daughter Maryellen Didden; granddaughter Amanda Grove, granddaughter Brianna Gunther, Gavin, daughter Kriss Grove, and daughter-in-law Cathy Gunther. (Submitted photo)

Told 21 years ago to start walking for his own health, Bill Gavin, of Westminster, has raised almost $100,000 to help others with health issues through two decades of participating in the Walk MS fundraiser of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

"I started back in '94 after I had open heart surgery and I had to walk — it was part of the exercise and recuperation — I thought I might as well walk for good reason," Gavin said. "My brother has MS and my daughter has MS, so I thought, 'I'll walk for MS.'"

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Now the Maryland Chapter of the MS Society is planning to induct Gavin into its hall of fame at the organization's annual meeting in October in recognition of his dedication to the cause. He's already raised more than $6,300 for the Walk MS: Westminster 2015 event on April 26. It will be his 22nd Walk MS fundraiser.

"We have a fundraising hall of fame here at the Maryland Chapter for individuals that have lifetime fundraising exceeding $100,000 ... It hasn't happened yet, but he is on track," said Mark Roeder, president of the National MS Society Maryland Chapter. "Year in and year out, Bill is really within our top 10 walkers across the state, oftentimes he's within the top five, and his dedication and ability to fund raise for our mission is just outstanding."

Gavin said he was not aware there was a hall of fame for MS walkers, but he was certainly flattered, even if the driving force behind his participation was to help people.

"It's important to me from the family standpoint, but also because it is such an insidious disease, the sort that can effect you for a month or two, then go into remission for a year or two," Gavin said. "You never know when it is going to happen or how it will effect you."

That attitude is in keeping with who Gavin is, according to his daughter, Maryellen Didden.

Didden said her father, a former Carroll Hospital Center board member, has had a lifelong commitment to improving the health of others and it was no surprise to her to learn he was to be honored for his efforts on behalf of the MS Society.

"I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of my father, he is an amazing human being," Didden said. "When I was a little girl, I was in Catholic school and I had to write a paper on who your hero was. People were writing about President Kennedy or the Pope, our being Catholic. But my hero was my father and that's never changed."

Didden was diagnosed with MS around the time Gavin began participating in the walks and began walking with him about 15 years ago. She will join him in Westminster for the walk later this month — she now lives on Kent Island — but given how close he is to the $100,000 mark, she is asking all of the people who would normally donate to her campaign to pledge to Gavin instead.

"Last year, he was the number eight fundraiser in the state ... I am hoping we can get a number one on his back next year," she said. "He is 79 years old this year ... I would love to see him break $10,000."

Gavin will also have the help of his "Band of Beauties," Didden, his other daughter Amanda Grove, his two granddaughters and daughter-in-law, who walk with him.

"I have always said that it is good to have them along in case I need to be carried," Gavin joked. "I am 79 years young."

As to his secret to such consistently successful fundraising, Gavin said it is the passion to help family and others and the persistence borne of that passion that is the key. He's held fundraising events at restaurants in some years, but his year-over-year success comes from direct relationships with sponsors — they even begin to call him and ask if he isn't going to ask them for a donation if he is late in making the rounds.

"I just started going around to ask people if they would sponsor me and for many, many years that's all I did and some just got more generous over the years," Gavin said. "I have one fellow ... every year he gives me $500 and his company matches it, so one donation amounts to $1,000. You get a couple like that pretty soon you are talking about real money."

That's real money that does real good.

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Multiple Sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system where the communication between brain and parts of the body is interrupted, according to Roeder. For reasons that are still not understood, the body's immune system attacks myelin, a protective coating on nerve fibers that is analogous to the insulation on an electric wire.

"In the areas where the myelin becomes damaged, scars form and those scars ... are what interrupts the flow of nerve impulses to the rest of the body," Roeder said. "Your brain could be sending a message to your hand, but that signal is getting interrupted and diverted. The symptoms can vary tremendously. They can be mild tremors, or they can be more severe: Loss of vision, paralysis and severe cognitive issues."

The National MS Society has used money raised by events like Walk MS: Westminster to fund hundreds of research projects worldwide, more than 300 in 2014 alone, according to Roeder, and the 12 disease-modifying treatments now available for MS patients came from research the society helped pay for.

What that means, when it comes to where rubber hits the road, is Gavin's 22 years of walking has directly improved the lives of others — his brother, his daughter and the 10,000 other Marylanders who are affected by MS. That's something Didden is proud of, but, she said, is hardly surprising.

"Like I said, my dad is amazing."

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If you go

What: Walk MS: Westminster 2015

When: 9 a.m. Sunday, April 26; walk begins at 10 a.m.

Where: Carroll Community College, 1601 Washington Road, Westminster

Cost: Free to register but participants asked to raise funds or make donations.

To register for the Walk MS: Westminster or any other Walk MS event, go to http://www.walkms.org and search for the location of the event you are interested in.

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