When she was 12, Gretchen Cannell was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Because of the life-threatening illness, the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Maine stepped in shortly after the diagnosis was made in 1996 and set up a meeting between the young basketball fan and her idol, Shaquille O’Neal.
Fourteen years have passed since the girl from Grand Lake Stream in Washington County met with O’Neal, who is now playing for the Boston Celtics. Gretchen died last year, but the legacy of her wish lives on for seven Maine children.
On Jan. 25, 1996, Gretchen had no idea her wish was going to come true. She went to school that day just as she did any other day. It was stormy, but when the limousine came to pick up the pre-teen from school, all the children ran out of their classes to see her off.
She was going to meet Shaq.
After a ride to the airport, the girl and her family flew to Orlando, Fla., to meet the 7-foot-1 basketball star, who then played for the Orlando Magic.
At halftime, when Gretchen and Shaq met, his press people told her she could have only one autograph. Gretchen had a photograph for him to sign, but he had other plans. The basketball star brought out a brand new sneaker — size 23 — and signed it for her.
She gave Shaq a hug and left the room.
“Every player of the Orlando Magic [had] lined up to shake her hand, but she was so happy with the sneaker she didn’t realize and she just walked out,” Jo-anne Cannell recalled Thursday about her daughter’s visit. “She was just ecstatic.”
Although Gretchen loved sports, it was difficult for her to participate in them. She had five brain tumors in 14 years. After her first operation she had to relearn to walk and to talk.
“She loved sports, and that’s what you do up here in this area,” her Mom said. “She loved to swim and fly fish and everything, but she was unable to do a lot of those things.”
But her love for Shaq never wavered.
“She loved basketball. She followed Shaq all the way through and we still do,” Cannell said.
Gretchen lived to be 26.
Before she died in 2009, Gretchen told her mother she wanted Shaq’s shoe to be auctioned to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation so other children’s wishes could come true.
“She accepted everything in her life and always knew there was someone worse off than she was. She was a caring person. She never complained and always had a smile on her face,” Cannell said. “[This] was her way of being able to help. It wasn’t going to do her any good. She knew she was dying. It was one thing she had asked us to do.”
Earlier this year at the nonprofit organization’s annual auction fundraiser in Rockport, the auctioneer started the bids for the signed shoe at $3,000.
The room was quiet.
“It didn’t sink in right away what the sneaker represented. It was almost out of respect for Gretchen there was silence,” said Lisa Gleeson, a spokesperson for Make-A-Wish Foundation of Maine. “Then all of a sudden people started putting their paddles up and you could see the joy on everyone’s faces.”
Tears streamed down Gretchen’s mom’s face as she watched her child’s final wish come true.
The bidding finally stopped at $20,000. But the generosity didn’t end there.
As soon as the auction was over, the winning bidder got up and handed the sneaker back to Cannell.
After that “we had people approaching our checkout booth at the auction and making straight donations. They weren’t bidding; they were making donations,” Gleeson said Friday. “It made people understand the power of her wish. I think everyone was moved enough to want to provide something similar for kids in Maine who have life-threatening conditions.”
All in all, the shoe raised $42,000 for the foundation, enabling the wishes of seven other children to be granted.
One of those children is Eliza Dudley, 5, of Sidney, who got a Maltipoo puppy as her wish. The girl suffers from a life-threatening brain tumor, as Gretchen did.
The other beneficiaries are Paige Lento, 5, of Easton, who went to Walt Disney World in October; Quinton Tozier, 15, of Ellsworth, who met John Cena of World Wrestling Entertainment a week after the shoe was auctioned; Zachery Raye, 18, of Pittsfield, who went on a shopping spree in August; Jordan Mathieu, 3, of Fairfield, who received a pop-up camper in August; one child who wishes to remain anonymous who went to England in August; and an 11-year-old Ellsworth boy who wants to remain anonymous who will spend next New Year’s Eve in Australia.
Cannell isn’t sure what she will do with her daughter’s sneaker now. She suspects that at some point she will give it back to Make-A-Wish for another fundraiser.
“That’s where it came from in the first place,” she said.
For more information about the Make-A-Wish Foundation or to make a donation, visit www.wish.org.