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Article updated: 2/12/2013 6:19 PM

Goofy brothers get serious about fighting cancer

By Burt Constable

As young brothers, Tom and Bill Latourette competed against each other in sports, board games or whatever silly contest they could envision.

Now that Tom is 48 and Bill is 47, the boys have that silly thing down pat.

What started in 2002 as an outreach of their competitive nature to sponsor a friend with cancer in a charity walk has blossomed into a full-fledged eclectic spectacle that has used golf, opera, clowns, an '85 Chicago Bear, tubas, a beauty queen, bobbleheads, the polka star from "Home Alone," a "miniature golfer" pianist, vuvuzelas, Irish dancers and the Wheel of Meat to raise almost $400,000 to help local people with cancer.

The seeds of the "Beat Tom & Bill, Beat Cancer" golf tournament were planted two decades ago when the brothers were looking for a way to share some fun times together.

"We're best friends," says Bill, who lives in Mount Prospect.

"But really competitive," says Tom, who lives in Rolling Meadows. "Ultra competitive."

So they played golf six times a year and used a complex scoring system to crown a winner. The loser would buy the winner a golf shirt and hat from wherever they played.

"We'd have to spend 40 bucks and our wives would get mad at us," Bill notes. So they opted for a traveling trophy -- the Latourette Cup, which looks like a miniature version of hockey's Stanley Cup, only with big handles that make drinking out of it easier.

"I won the first year and got my name on the cup, and I haven't won since," Tom says.

"It's on my dresser," Bill says proudly.

"We had some of our best moments as golfers," Tom says, recounting the time they laughed so hard when Tom was seemingly on the verge of certain victory after a clutch par only to see Bill sink a 150-yard iron shot for a winning birdie.

Both are average golfers (Bill's handicap is 15 and Tom's is 22), "but together we golf pretty well," Tom says.

They've discovered the same thing with their charity.

A bunch of individuals team up and do something extraordinary for people with cancer. Bill gets help from his wife, Michele, and kids Ray, 21, and Megan, 19, both students at Illinois State University. Tom's wife, Lucy, and their daughters, Claire, 16, and Christine, 13, also work on the event. Tom and Bill's younger brother, Matthew, also helps, and younger sister Sue now manages the team of more than 100 volunteers. Their mother, Maryalice, and father, Bill, also support the event.

When Barrington native Paula Guzzetta, the wife of their childhood buddy, Paul Guzzetta, announced she was walking in Avon's three-day Walk for A Cure in 2002, Tom and Bill organized a golf tourney and challenged friends to "Beat Tom & Bill." The event took on added importance after Paula was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"At the time, it seemed like a one-time deal," remembers Paula, who recovered fully and is now a teaching assistant at a suburban middle school.

The 30 golfers that first year could not beat Tom and Bill, but they had lots of fun and raised $3,000. The competitive brothers wanted to see if they could do even better the next year, and the year after that.

"Friends and friends of friends just kept showing up year after year," says Paula. She is a dependable volunteer and Paul serves on the board of what now is the not-for-profit Beat Tom & Bill Foundation. Last year, the charity raised and distributed more than $90,000 to four local families, two cancer charities and created an endowment at St. Patrick High School in Chicago (where Tom and Bill graduated) to help students whose families are fighting cancer.

"It's crazy," says Tom, noting that as their fundraising has gotten more serious, their event has grown sillier.

On the day of the event, golfers often find themselves teeing off next to a band composed entirely of clowns, young girls performing Irish dances or even popular Chicago Bear and Super Bowl champion Dennis "Silky D" McKinnon, who says he considers Tom and Bill "brothers from another mother."

"I love their spirit and love their heart," says McKinnon, who donates his time and celebrity to lots of charities in Illinois. He is on the board of the Beat Tom & Bill Foundation and is one of their best fundraisers and hardest workers. McKinnon, who lives in suburban Lake County, met the brothers three years ago through connections Bill made at a leadership conference. Tom and Bill both work for Sunergos, a global performance consulting and leadership development firm headquartered in Arlington Heights.

"They're like the Smothers Brothers -- a little crazy, but more importantly, their hearts are in the right place," says McKinnon, now in his third year with the charity.

"I grew up in a Christian home. This foundation is like home for me," says the retired football star, who notes the seriousness of the cause gets a boost from the silliness of the event.

"I really don't even play golf. To me it's a chance to tell stories. When people ask me what my handicap is, I say I'm black," McKinnon jokes. "This is like Ringling Brothers circus. They've had me do things where embarrassment is part of the format."

As emcees of their event, Tom and Bill often get mistaken for a wacky morning radio team. Tom has written and performed a few parody songs that have played on the radio, including his popular "Please Stop Believing" homage to Cubs fans. During one of his recording sessions, Tom ran into gifted musician Chris Errera of Schaumburg. Now Errera, who was born with a rare growth disorder and barely tops 4 feet, volunteers as the "miniature golfer" who warms up the crowd with his expert piano playing and lively personality.

The event can be irreverent and outlandish, the brothers admit, but it's just so much fun. In addition to a dinner and various auctions, one of their most popular events is the raffle for a chance to spin the Wheel of Meat and win anything from bratwurst and beef jerky to kangaroo and python meat.

"Or maybe they'll win the 'Summer of Spam' or the 'Summer of Sausage' or even the 'Summer of Summer Sausage,'" Tom says.

The charity has bought medicines, paid routine bills and just made life a little easier for dozens of families.

"They are two brothers who came out of nowhere like angels," says Lisa Serio, a 43-year-old Mount Prospect mother of two, who received funds a couple of years ago during a rough spell after being diagnosed with a smooth-muscle cancer called leiomyosarcoma. "We used it to pay our mortgage and basically to survive."

She's back at work now in her job as a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. Her husband, Dan, is on the board of Tom and Bill's charity. She and their children, Nicholas, 14, and Lauren, who turns 11 next week, are big fans of the brothers and their event.

"There are so many poignant moments. The room is filled with people who care," Lisa Serio says.

With the help of the foundation, Lutheran General boasts an art therapy program for cancer patients. Called "Sally's Studio," the program is in memory of Sally Gorney-Avila of Elmwood Park, who died shortly before the Beat Tom and Bill event in 2009. Several of the cancer patients helped through the years have died, but their families still help with the event, the brothers note.

The money helps, but sometimes just knowing that a few hundred people care enough to show up and have fun is the biggest gift, supporters say.

"It wasn't just that they were supporting the cause, it was having this tangible support with all the people coming out. It's just so refreshing," says Paula, who got the party started as the first recipient and now is one of many cancer-surviving volunteers. She remembers how grateful she was to have that first golf event take her mind off cancer.

"One thing you're really craving," Paula says, "is a little slice of normal."

Well, normal might be stretching it.

Cancer: Brothers started a foundation that has raised almost $400,000

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