Phil Gahm’s In & Out of the Box Philanthropy
Written by Courtney Kinney Woeste
Photography by Chris Witzke & Kertis Creative
Phil Gahm is standing in the basement of his Indian Hills condo, fondly flipping through a stack of letters and hand-made thank you cards. He pulls out one, then another, smiling and telling stories about the people who wrote them.
The cards and letters are all from people Gahm has hosted in his suite at the KFC Yum! Center during University of Louisville basketball games. But they aren’t business contacts or golf buddies or even family members. They’re kids from Big Brothers Big Sisters and homeless families from the Volunteers of America. They’re members of autism and cystic fibrosis groups. They’re people facing adversity whose lives Gahm is hoping to change through his organization, “The Champ” Foundation.
And, in turn, they’re changing his. “You don’t realize how much good is going on in our community. I get to see the good things in that suite,” says Gahm, 59, who created the organization in 2010. “I call it my ‘sacred space’ because anybody who walks into that space is showing me, by example, how you’re supposed to be compassionate, how you’re supposed to be helpful and be thoughtful. After you hang around those people enough, you start thinking ‘maybe I should start to be like that, too.’ ”
Gahm is co-owner of his family’s successful cabinet business, Kitchen Kompact, and part of the family that founded Valhalla Golf Club. He’s a dad and a sports nut. “Philanthropist” isn’t a title he planned to add to that list, and one that – with his trademark humility – he tends to shrug off. But a health scare almost 20 years ago set him on a path that, through a series of events and chance meetings, made him into one nonetheless.
In 1997, Gahm, then a 40-year-old father of five, was playing in a golf tournament when what felt like an electric shock to the head took him to the ground. He was sweating, with a nagging pain in his throat, but the former high school football star and Purdue University rugby player got up and finished the round anyway.
A trip to urgent care later in the day found nothing out of the ordinary, and he geared up for day two of the tournament. Standing on the first tee the next morning, rain began pouring, and the tournament was cancelled. But the celebratory dinner was still a go and, despite still feeling a bit off, Gahm went. Not long into the evening, that nagging pain suddenly turned into a dagger-like stabbing in his throat. Gahm rushed to the emergency room.
Within hours, he was undergoing a triple bypass to repair a dissection of the aorta, a tear in the wall of the main artery that carries blood from the heart. It’s a life-threatening condition that usually goes undiagnosed until it stops a patient’s heart. The doctors told Gahm he was within an hour of dying. If he’d played golf that day, they said, he’d have died on the course.
The brush with death pushed Gahm into a low period. He was stressed and crying at work. He needed something, he just didn’t know what.
“When you think you’re invincible and then you’re not, you think you’re dead,” Gahm says. “I just needed something to make me feel like, ‘hey, God, you kept me around. What did you keep me around for?’ I had no clue. That’s all I was thinking about for two years.”
In 1999, his mother also suffered a dissection of the aorta. Thanks to Gahm’s experience two years earlier, he recognized the symptoms and the doctors were able to diagnose it in time. That helped him to start his own existential healing process.
“I thought, I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to say thank you somehow,” Gahm says.
Gahm didn’t know what that meant – just that it should have something to do with sports, and it had to be hands on. Around 2000, Gahm started playing basketball every Monday afternoon with kids in the after-school program at St. Boniface Church. After a while, he was looking for something more when he came across a note in the church bulletin asking for volunteers for Meals on Wheels. The nun who usually delivered for ElderServe would be leaving, and someone needed to replace her. Gahm signed up.
On his first day, he met Robert Blincoe. Sister Dorothy told him Mr. Blincoe was special. But Gahm didn’t spend too much time finding out more.
“I got in, I got out. I was delivering food, making myself think I’m doing something good, but I was always in a hurry,” Gahm says.
One day, Blincoe told him to stop rushing and sit down. Gahm complied, though reluctantly. They started talking about sports, a topic dear to both men, but soon moved on to politics, church and other things. Gahm stopped rushing through his deliveries to Blincoe and instead sat in his living room – the same spot every time – talking about life.
Blincoe was a veteran and a former boxer who had trained in the same gym as Muhammed Ali. By the time Gahm met him, he was a housebound senior suffering from the Agent Orange he had acquired in Vietnam. But he never complained. Even in the hospital, where Gahm would visit often over the last three years of his life, Blincoe was upbeat and positive. It’s that attitude that inspired Gahm’s foundation, and the message he tells visitors to his suite at half-time.
“All you can do is handle adversity in the best manner that you can. It’s called ‘The Champ’ Foundation because Mr. Blincoe handled adversity like a champ,” Gahm says. “I tell them, here you are, in your glory in a suite watching a U of L basketball game, and then you may go back home and have something happen to you the very next day. How are you going to handle that? Because that’s when you find out who you are — when you handle adversity. I didn’t find that out until later in life. I’m talking to people who are getting hit early with huge problems. I feel almost like it’s not me talking. It’s Mr. Blincoe talking. I’m just the messenger here.”
“The Champ” Foundation was formed in 2010, but grew from seeds that were planted over the course of at least a decade. There were the kids at St. Boniface who he’d play basketball with and think how great it would be for them to experience a college game. When the Charlotte Hornets considered moving to Louisville in 2002, Gahm went to a meeting to talk about buying a suite to bring underprivileged kids to games. After the meeting, a city alderman came to him and asked why he didn’t consider buying a suite for University of Louisville basketball games. At the time, the team played at Freedom Hall where suites didn’t turn over often. Gahm tabled the thought and continued his work with Meals on Wheels.
Then, it was announced that U of L basketball would have a new home – a brand new arena to be built downtown.
“I thought, ‘well, I have to now!’” Gahm says, laughing. “What am I going to do? Am I going to be a hypocrite or am I going to really do something?”
Gahm bought the suite, then got to work on the details. He walked into the Big Brothers Big Sisters office downtown – in his sweat pants, fresh from the gym – and asked if he could host a group. He even stopped basketball legend Darryl Griffith on an airplane one day to talk with him. But he knew he was in over his head. When two different people suggested he talk with the Community Foundation of Louisville, Gahm set up a meeting.
“After I left that meeting, I said, ‘that’s a definite. We need them,’” he says.
The partnership has been an overwhelming success. Over the past six years, “The Champ” Foundation has hosted more than 50 organizations at more than 100 games. For the participants, the experience is one they’ll remember forever. The people who attend the games are, for the most part, not in a position to afford tickets to any sporting event, let alone a suite at one of the country’s premier college basketball programs.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a population that, from time to time, needs to be center of attention,” says John Launius, director of Volunteers of America, which “The Champ” Foundation has hosted several times. “Phil makes them the center of attention for that day.”
The Community Foundation has also helped Gahm expand his foundation’s reach with scholarships set up at Northern Kentucky University, Bellarmine University and Western Kentucky University and with financial grants to support books published by the Louisville Story Program, which tells the stories of the city’s underrepresented populations.
He’s not sure what direction it will take next, but Gahm is excited to see what else “The Champ” Foundation can do to change the lives of others, and his own.
“Bad as all that was, (the health scare) was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life,” Gahm says. “I assume that’s the way things work. You have to go through something horrible that you can’t understand, then the little angels start saying ‘hey, what about this, why don’t you try this.’ I’m not sitting here reading the stars. I don’t know anything. It’s like it’s all just fallen in my lap. And you gotta do what you gotta do.”
A few years ago, Marcus Stubbs was a homeless high school senior sharing a room with his family at Volunteers of America’s emergency family housing shelter. When the opportunity arose to attend a University of Louisville basketball game with “The Champ” Foundation, Stubbs thought it would fun. Who wouldn’t want to watch a game from a suite at the KFC Yum! Center?
But it was at halftime when the foundation’s creator, Phil Gahm, gathered the group and talked about facing adversity, the importance of helping others and accepting help that’s offered to you that Stubbs realized he was getting more out of the experience than just fun. He was getting an opportunity.
“(Gahm) was someone just reaching out. That’s an important thing – just reaching out to someone you don’t even know,” says Stubbs, 22, now a senior at Western Kentucky University. “It was like a chain reaction. When he gave a lending hand, I wanted to do that, too. Whether it was big or it was small, I wanted to make sure I did something for someone else.”
Gahm was likewise inspired by Stubbs, whose ability to thrive despite obstacles epitomized the mission of “The Champ” Foundation. Gahm followed Stubbs’ progress and, in December, announced two endowed scholarships funded by “The Champ” Foundation and named for Marcus Stubbs.
“I thought, ‘here’s a kid at a young age that’s handling adversity right off the bat and trying to turn it into something good.’ That’s what ‘The Champ’ Foundation is all about,” Gahm says. “I wanted to do something to honor him.”
The scholarships are designed for alumni of the Volunteers of America’s Family Emergency Shelter program. One scholarship will fund education at Western Kentucky University. The other, administered through the Community Foundation of Louisville, is for any school in the Kentucky Community & Technical College System.
During the past four years at WKU, Stubbs has lived up to the lessons learned in the suite, mentoring minority middle school students and giving back through his business fraternity and campus ministry. This winter, he will graduate.
“It’s been golden,” says Stubbs of his journey. “I won a scholarship, I’m going on my third study abroad trip, I’m making relationships with administrators, students, people in Bowling Green. I’m just doing the best I can to pay it forward like Phil has done with me.”
Louisville Story Program
This year’s home win against second-ranked University of North Carolina was, arguably, the high point of the University of Louisville’s basketball season. But inside Phil Gahm’s suite at the KFC Yum! Center, the night was even more special for the Louisville Story Program.
Gahm, founder of “The Champ” Foundation, was hosting the nonprofit Louisville Story Program and its group of local authors writing a book about the Dirt Bowl, the revered West Louisville basketball tournament. The group was just happy for the experience: an evening in a suite watching two of the country’s most celebrated programs in one of the year’s most exciting games. At halftime, Gahm made the group’s night, surprising them with a check from “The Champ” Foundation to support the book.
“You should have seen (the director),” Gahm says, laughing. “When he found out we were contributing, he almost hit the floor.”
Published by the Louisville Story Program earlier this year, “I Said Bang!: A History of the Dirt Bowl, the Crown Jewel of the Most Basketball-Obsessed City in America” is a collection of stories written by 37 different people who have been involved with the Dirt Bowl over its 46-year history as coaches, mentors, players or spectators.
The basketball tournament was started in the summer of 1969 by two college students during the height of unrest in the Civil Rights era. By the end of that summer, the Dirt Bowl was the social center of the community, drawing members of the city’s professional team the Kentucky Colonels, star college and high school players, and sandlot legends. The tournament became the cultural event of the year for decades to come, drawing families, friends and neighbors together.
The Louisville Story Program is a nonprofit that helps underrepresented Louisville communities tell their stories in their own words.
“The support of Mr. Gahm and his ‘Champ’ Foundation has been a godsend for the Louisville Story Program,” says Darcy Thompson, founder of the program. “We would not be where we are without Mr. Gahm.”
“The Champ” Foundation also supported the program’s first book, “Our Shawnee,” written by eight students from the Academy @ Shawnee. Gahm recently announced the foundation will support the program’s third project, a collection of memoirs and oral histories by authors from the Kentucky School for the Blind.