When I joined the National Coalition of Abortion Providers in the early 1990’s, I was excited at the prospect of representing these courageous doctors and clinic staff who put their lives on the line for hundreds of thousands of women. I was overwhelmed at the thought of representing them on the national scene.
One of my first tasks was to raise money. After all, you can’t have an organization without money so I started communicating with as many abortion doctors or clinic owners as possible to try to convince them to join our fledgling organization. I was a little anxious but confident that I could persuade them that they needed someone combing the halls of Congress to protect their unique interests.
To compile a list of potential members, I asked the founders of NCAP who I should contact and the name of one doctor came up several times – Doctor Gary Dendres. I was told he was important because he was the owner of a large chain of clinics in Florida and New York. He was a player, a powerful one and we needed him on our team. I was also told that he never joined anything and preferred to stay under the radar. He was very much the “mystery man” in the world of abortion clinics.
After weeks of persistent calling, I was finally told that Doctor Dendres would meet with me. I gulped and jumped on a plane to Tampa. From the airport I took a taxi to his small corporate office a few miles away. I was very nervous, didn’t know what to expect and I sat in the waiting room for 45 minutes. Then, suddenly, there he was, standing right in front of me.
“Hey, are you Pat Richards?” he asked. Before I could get a word in, he interrupted. “Well, c’mon in, I don’t have much time. I have a tennis lesson.”
He was nothing like I had imagined. He was about 50 years old, 5 feet 9 inches, a little on the rotund side, a very expressive face and, by the way, a long pony tail. In true Florida style, he was wearing a bright orange flowered shirt, shorts and sandals. It was clear he had no use for me and I started thinking about catching an earlier flight out of Tampa.
“So, tell me why you are here again,” escorting me into a very small room.
I was ready with my pitch. I told him how abortion providers needed a presence on Capitol Hill and before I could detail what I would be doing for the organization, he stopped me.
“Okay, let me tell you something” he said. “I don’t give a crap if Roe versus Wade is overturned so don’t even go there.”
With a puzzled look on my face I asked “what do you mean?”
“Okay, so if Roe is overturned then the issue is left up to the states, right? Well, I’ve got clinics in Florida and New York and they’re pretty liberal states. So, if all of those other backward states outlaw abortions and my two states keep it legal, then all of those women are going to have to come to me.”
It was my first lesson in the business of abortion. I suddenly needed a new approach to woo him.
From the beginning, I recognized a New York accent. I inquired where he was from and he said Long Beach. Since I was from Brooklyn, I thought I’d try to make him more comfortable by talking about my love for the New York Yankees. At one point, I mentioned that I had been a pretty good ballplayer in my day but I know he didn’t believe me. Suddenly, he jumped from his seat and said “Crap, I forgot about my tennis lesson!”
He ordered me into his car and we drove out to his club. He introduced me to Bob, his tennis pro. It was a typical muggy Florida day, very breezy. I took a seat and watched the good doctor volleying with his pro. I was impressed at how light he was on his feet. I could tell he was an athlete in his day.
“Okay,” he yells at me. “You say you were a ballplayer, huh? Well, I’ll make you a deal. I’m gonna have Bob hit three balls as high in the air as possible. If you catch all three, I’ll join your organization.”
I was puzzled but, heck, I really had nothing to lose except my pride. I was very concerned about the wind but I said “okay, you’re on.”
Bob hit the first ball a mile up into the wind and I had to run all over the court, but I caught it. I then caught the next two balls as well. Piece of cake. I think Doctor Dendres was impressed but he didn’t say a word. He then asked how much it cost to join the organization. At that point, NCAP had no set fees, we were just trying to collect as much money as possible. I also had no idea what was a lot of money to these folks.
I gulped and said “$3,000.” He didn’t say a word.
We spent more time together that day. He entertained me with stories about the “old days” of abortion. He performed them for years but had stopped to focus on running his clinics. Like any businessman, he wanted to make money but I learned also that his prices for abortions were not that high and, indeed, his clinics often performed them for free for women in need.
Over the years, we have become very good friends. Our families know each other, he constantly asks about my kids (he offered them both their first cigar). He is also one of the few people that I can go to to get a straight answer. The staff at his clinics love him and most of the directors have been with him for twenty years or more.
Oh, and by the way, a week after catching those three tennis balls we got a check from the good doctor for $3,000. And over the years, he became a player in our organization.
Here’s looking at you, Gary.