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Chicago entrepreneur goes on walkabout with her hero, Olivia Newton-John
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-08-03

This article shared 783 times since Wed Aug 3, 2016
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In the title track of her 2006 album Grace and Gratitude, musician, cancer survivor and philanthropist Olivia Newton-John sang "All I have and all I feel is all because of you. All I reap is all I sow and love is our living proof."

It sums up the effect Newton-John has had on Chicago entrepreneur and philanthropist Mindy Verson.

On Sept. 11, 2016, Verson—who describes Newton-John as a childhood hero and a woman who "inspired my dreams"—will make the trip of a lifetime to Melbourne, Australia.

There, Verson will team up with six individuals who not only share a passionate love for Newton-John's work but a motivation to "do something good in this world for others."

Collectively calling themselves The Sol Seven—a tribute to the all-girl group The Sol Four which Newton-John formed as a teenager in her hometown of Melbourne—Verson and her friends will participate in the 2016 Wellness Walk & Research Run.

Verson's company Verson Productions is a corporate sponsor of the fundraising event which includes a 5K walk, 5K run and 10K run around the magnificent Bundoora campus of La Trobe University in Melbourne.

It is organized by and in support of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre ( The ONJ Centre ) which, according to its website is "dedicated to providing the very best in medical care and treatment; combined with research programs for new treatments to help stop cancer from destroying the lives of so many people."

In the 1970s and '80s, Newton-John was a worldwide phenomenon. She landed a starring role as Sandy in the 1978 film Grease only five years after winning a Grammy Award for her debut album Let Me Be There. The massive success of Grease was followed by a double-platinum album Physical.

"Her records sold millions," author Tim Ewbank writes in a biography Olivia, "her concerts were sell-outs and, at her peak, she was receiving 2,000 fan letters a week."

But, in 1992, Newton-John's fortunes changed so dramatically that they threatened to both collapse her world and end her life. In August of that year, Newton-John wrote "Why Me?" which would be eventually be featured on her album Gaia: One Woman's Journey.

She had been diagnosed with breast cancer within days of her father Brinley succumbing to the disease, which ravaged his liver.

Newton-John had to mourn him while engaged in her own mental and physical struggle as she endured chemotherapy, a partial mastectomy and breast reconstruction.

The night after her surgery, Newton-John penned the lyrics to "Why Me?"

"Life does the strangest things. You never know what each moment can bring. You turn around, your life has changed. You've got to fight each round. Yes take it on the chin. No don't you ever give in."

Such a resolve to survive, the lessons Newton-John learned through a personally created healing regimen and her determination to, as she put it, "help others going through the same journey" ultimately led to the founding of the ONJ Centre.

"I believe that, through our research, we will ultimately find cures for all types of cancer," Newton-John wrote. "My dream is that one day the ONJ Centre will be only about Wellness, and we will no longer need cancer [centers] because cancer will be a thing of the past."

At a young age, Verson's dreams were wholly inspired by Newton-John's work.

"I was a latchkey child," Verson told Windy City Times, "and latchkey kids look up to our favorite musicians or actors. [Newton-John] was that for me from the age of 10. She became a moral compass and I emulated her behavior. She didn't do drugs so I didn't do them. I kept to myself and never got in trouble."

At age 5, Newton-John moved from her birthplace of Cambridge, England to Australia. At the same age, Verson was nurturing a love of Australia that began with multiple viewings of the 1967 television series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.

"It was my favorite show," Verson said. "I still win money from Aussies in bars who don't believe I can sing the theme song."

Verson will also never forget the first time she saw Newton-John in concert.

She was playing during a rodeo at the now-demolished International Amphitheatre in Chicago's Canaryville neighborhood.

Verson was 13. Staying out of trouble be damned—simply remaining an audience member was just not enough.

"My best buddy and I snuck backstage," Verson said with a laugh. "When we met [Newton-John] we said 'hello' and just stood there shaking. I was utterly speechless and, if you'd known me back then, you would know that was a pretty rare thing. She was polite and she was pleasant and maybe said two sentences but it was magical. It was a moment in time that was pivotal. It changed my life."

Years later, Verson was able to tell Newton-John why.

"If she had been mean to me, my life might have taken a different path," Verson explained. "Famous people meet [their fans] all the time so they can forget who they are. But the person who meets them remembers it for a lifetime."

Verson has been to countless Newton-John concerts since and has managed to make her way backstage almost every time.

Ewbank recalled the early concerts when Newton-John was "so wracked with nerves she felt physically ill."

"Today in concert," he added, "she sings without fear the songs she loves, the songs she wants to sing and for the sheer joy of the musical gift she has been given."

As a teen, Verson hoped it was a gift they had in common.

"I was terrible," she admitted with a laugh. "At some point in life, you are either good enough as a musician or you're not. I realized I wasn't. So I had to figure out a way to still be in the business I loved, but not be a musician. After high school I got jobs at record stores. I started managing them and then I started managing and booking bands in Chicago. I called Foote Kirkpatrick who I had once worked with at an audio studio called Universal and asked her for a job. She said 'Verson, you're hired.' She was quite a mentor and we stayed friends until the day she died."

Verson would eventually leverage her knowledge of the recording industry to found two businesses. Verson Productions offers artist and social media branding. Stir Post provides audio post-production for commercial, film and web content. It has garnered multiple awards.

"The more successful I became, the more I thought of paying it back," Verson said. "I don't have children. So in 2003, I adopted [The ONJ Centre] as a surrogate baby. I wanted to give back to someone who had given so much to me in ways that she knew and didn't know about."

Verson asserted that one of the things the ONJ Centre did not know about was the extent of the organization's global reach. Those, like her, who wanted to donate from the United States hit a road-block on the website.

"You could not donate from outside of Australia," Verson recalled. "I helped them by being a guinea-pig as to how to do that. This past January, [Newton-John] asked me to hold an eBay auction where I sold some autographed merchandise for her. We made about $8,000 doing that."

Verson is the only American on The Sol Seven team, some of whom she met on social media, some at Newton-John's concerts.

It will be Verson's first trip to Australia but her excitement at being able to take a walk around the Boondura campus with her childhood hero or even seeing the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park near Sydney where Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was filmed pales compared to something far more significant.

"I am actually going to be able to see what all this fundraising has done and see it in action," she said. "I'm getting a tour of the [The ONJ Centre] facilities and they're all very happy that I am coming. I mean, this is pretty much my legacy. To me, there is nothing better than helping people without an agenda. I know for a fact that, no matter what it is you are giving—money, time, kindness, even just acknowledging people's existence—comes back to you in all kinds of ways. I have always believed that I have two hands: one for me and one to help others. The feeling I get from doing that is so positive that it is hard to pinpoint in a tangible way."

This includes the feeling Verson had when, at one of Newton-John's concerts, the singer acknowledged her from the stage and technicians moved the spotlight to the audience to momentarily shine on her.

"True altruism is not expecting anything in return," Verson said. "But really you get love."

While their careers ended up on differing sides of a recording studio window, Verson and Newton-John share the same philosophy.

"To be loved is the most basic of human needs," the singer once said. "Like a flower, it waters the human soul. But to love is a true blessing."

To support Mindy Verson and The Sol Seven in The ONJ Centre Wellness Walk & Research Run, visit: wwrr16.everydayhero.com/au/mindy .


This article shared 783 times since Wed Aug 3, 2016
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