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Giving smiles: Comedian’s nonprofit equips cancer patients with cowboy hats

By Austin Jackson | Published Saturday, February 16, 2019
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Hats Help

HATS HELP – William Lee Martin, a stand-up comedian and founder of the Cowboys Who Care Foundation – which donates cowboy hats to kids battling cancer – shows off some of the hats his organization will donate from his office in Rhome. The nonprofit has donated more than 8,000 hats to cancer patients over the past seven years.

After days surrounded by water, cracking up the Carnival cruise masses, William Lee Martin finds his legs at his office in Rhome, where cowboy hats stretch to the ceiling.

He takes a gulp of his blackberry lime beverage and eyes the inventory, awaiting the next opportunity to make somebody’s day better.

“We’ve got hats to move,” Martin said.

Martin, a Newark resident formerly known as Cowboy Bill, has been a working comic for 23 years. Comedy has taken him to stages across the world, and his one-hour stand up special aired on CMT with 1.7 million viewers. He deals smiles for a living.

Once the stage lights dim and the cameras stop rolling, his calling doesn’t stop.

For the past seven years, Martin has lifted up those who could use a smile the most – children battling cancer.

Finding Himself

FINDING HIMSELF – Stand-up comedian William Lee Martin of Newark began pursuing comedy 23 years ago after a career in advertising. Martin has performed across the world and in 2012 started the Cowboys Who Care Foundation. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

When he’s not on stage or on cruise ships, Martin can be found pushing a cart through hospitals, dishing out cowboy hats.

“There’s a lot of people trying to cure cancer,” Martin said. “I can’t cure cancer. I can put a smile on a kid’s face, though.”

In 2012, he founded Cowboys Who Care, a 501c3 organization, which donates cowboy hats to kids with cancer.

The organization, which has received donations from Resistol Hats, has given away more than 8,000 hats.

“You can see a change,” Martin said. “They puff out their chest. Who wants to wear a wig when you can be cowboy? You can see it on the parents’ faces, too. Just the relief of seeing their kid smile.”

Martin said the idea for Cowboys Who Care began after one of his fans, whose daughter was battling cancer, invited him to host and perform at a golf tournament in Celina.

“I got to know her, the mom and the dad … then I was asked to come to the vigil,” Martin said. “The cancer went away then came back with a vengeance. The next day they turned off all the life support. We were coming back on 635, and I had to pull off on the side of the road. I just lost it. I have five kids, and I knew I wanted to help, I just didn’t know how.”

Within days he found a way.

After praying with his wife, he said he sat in front of his computer and decided to Google ‘kids with cancer.’

“I tried to open it up to the universe, seeing if I could find the answers that way,” he said. “Had all these big, bright, beautiful faces and bald heads. In the reflection [of the screen] I saw my cowboy hat. That was the aha moment.”

Martin is no stranger to aha moments or guiding reflections.

The first occurred 23 years ago after he was laid off after working for nine years in advertising.

A merciful act, according to Martin.

“I used to look out my fourth floor window and think, ‘Will the fourth floor kill me or just break my legs?'” he said.

He was rudderless, unemployed and broke. He didn’t know what he wanted to do or be.

Martin said he called everyone he knew about his situation.

“My grandmother asked what I wanted to do, and I didn’t know,” Martin said. “She said, ‘Why don’t you go look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you’re happy. You’re almost 30 years old, and I never see you smile. I’d like to say I did that, but I didn’t. I sat in the fetal position for 5 months. It would have been six, but unemployment ran out.”

After months of wallowing, with bills stacking up and collectors swarming, Martin said he finally had his mirror moment.

“I stood about 19 inches from the mirror and asked myself: are you happy?,” Martin said. “I knew the answer was no before I even asked. I asked myself what I wanted out of life. Four hours later I called my grandmother and told her all I’ve ever wanted to do was to be on television, stage, radio and print.”

“She said, ‘Go for it!'”

For three years, Martin had been working on his book titled, ‘Life Under the Neon Moon Now That She’s Gone and Took the Dog with Her.’ Unemployment gave him time to finish it.

The prevailing feedback from those who read it was that the book read like stand-up comedy.

Aha.

Martin went full bore ahead into stand-up, despite his fear of public speaking.

“Tequila helped,” Martin joked. “I didn’t look back.”

In the first year, he lost his house and his truck. He threw up before shows. But he was happy with who he was becoming.

“A year-and-a-half later I was opening for George Strait at the Alamodome in front of 75,000 people,” he said. “It’s been a heck of a run since.”

He’s happy with his personal success, but said what’s most rewarding are the smiles from the cancer ward.

The kids who got to escape for just a moment and feel as big and tough as a cowboy.

“That’s what I’m proud of,” Martin said.

Martin hopes to reach more children through Cowboys Who Care. He’s expanded his program so that cancer patients can apply to have a cowboy hat shipped to them for free, instead of Martin and his team delivering them personally.

For more information on sending a hat to a cancer patient, visit cowboyswhocare.org.

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