“Wherever she could pull on heartstrings, she did,” said her granddaughter, Grace Sarber.
It is a cause that was born out of tragedy. In 1972, Cavert’s daughter, Ray Martin, gave birth to premature twin girls, Annie and Abbie, at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. The twins took turns in a ventilator designed for an adult. After eight days, Abbie died because Wolfson did not have the equipment to support even one premature baby.
Ray Martin and her husband, Richard, had to transport Annie in an incubator in the back of their station wagon to UF Health Shands in Gainesville.
Cavert wanted to ensure that fewer babies would face the same fate. She spoke to the family’s pediatrician, the late J.W. Hayes, who encouraged her to raise visibility and funds for Wolfson.
“I think that obviously Mother discovered a significant need, and she met it with her heart,” Ray Martin said. “It never occurred to her that it couldn’t be done. She had a ‘With God, all things are possible’ attitude from the very beginning. She invested her time and her incredible gift, particularly her people skills, to create what has become The Women’s Board.”
She started with a half-dozen friends and family in 1973 and soon had 40 women. Now there are 400 members from all over Jacksonville, and the board has raised more than $26 million for the private hospital, which gives away more than $40 million in charity care annually, said Sarber, its current president.
In 2013, the board launched a five-year, $4 million pledge to help fund Wolfson’s Pediatric Surgery Center of Distinction. It will be matched at 150 percent through the Baptist Health Foundation Endowment Fund. Recently, the board has given money for neonatal transport carts with monitors, a nursing research fund and eight neonatal intensive care unit beds that cost $25,000 each.
For her efforts, Cavert is the recipient of the Times-Union’s EVE Lifetime Achievement Award named for Arnolta J. “Mama” Williams.
The board’s first fundraising event was a Boehm porcelain exhibit in 1976. Its signature fundraiser, the annual Art & Antiques Show, was launched in 1977. Cavert once described the show as similar to a traveling museum in which the dealers bring in van loads of antiques and put them in room-like settings. Another fundraiser, The Florida Forum speaker series, started in 1992.
The modest Cavert said that anybody would help if asked to give money to a sick baby. That’s one of the sayings, called “Ellenisms,” that her grandmother is known for, Sarber said. Another is “sweet spirit,” the principle under which the board operates.
“I’m just thankful that the ladies are wanting to help others,” Cavert said.
Cavert was born in Jacksonville in 1920 and graduated from Landon High School. As a young woman, she showed a talent for art, be it paintings, furniture or china.
At 18, Cavert attended Ward Belmont Ladies’ Seminary in Nashville, where she met Tillman Cavert Jr., an attorney and member of the Tennessee Legislature. They married in 1940 and moved around the Southeast while he served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and then as a flight instructor for World War II pilots.
After the war, they moved to Jacksonville, and he joined his father-in-law’s business, Jacksonville Paper Co. They raised four children.
Her parents instilled in her a desire to help others, Cavert said. That included serving on the American Cancer Society executive board, the Young Life board, the Cummer Art & Gardens advisory board and the YWCA. She also was involved in church and Bible study activities. Martin said her mother was a perpetual volunteer who was usually in a leadership role.
Lou Hayes, the widow of J.W. Hayes, worked with her in many volunteer capacities, saying she had a gift for fundraising.
“She had a wonderful quiet and gentle way about her,” she said. “If she asked someone to help her, it was most unusual if they said no.”
Both Sarber and Martin said Cavert has been a role model and mentor to women on the board. Martin said her mother believed in doing everything with integrity, honesty and openness.
Cavert said she’s been able to do what she did because of her husband’s support. He played a behind-the-scenes role, including building booths for the antique show to accompanying her to every event.
In turn, Cavert accompanied her husband, a big-game hunter, to a few safaris in Africa and Alaska, where Sarber called her the best-dressed lady on safari. Tillman Cavert died in 2013. “He was my everything,” she said, with misty eyes.
At 95 and looking years younger, Cavert still attends executive committee meetings and serves on the advisory board.
“I visit her weekly with my children, and there is not a time I am with her that she is not advising me on Women’s Board subjects,” Sarber said. “The wisdom she offers me is invaluable, and I treasure it, as I treasure sharing this honor with my Granny.”
Sarber’s son recently was treated at Wolfson for a life-threatening illness, and three great-grandchildren have been treated there, Sarber said.
For her part, Cavert said: “I’ve had a wonderful life and wonderful things have happened to me.”
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