The first movie that Peter Warlick ’87 ever saw in a theater was The Great Waldo Pepper, a Robert Redford film about barnstorming pilots in the 1920s. He was about 5 years old, and it stuck. His mother took to saying that she had to make sure that the glass front door of their house was always left open, lest a plane fly overhead and young Warlick come flying down the stairs and go straight through the glass to catch a glimpse of it.
That passion would eventually lead him to learn how to fly private planes as a young man and would serve as a muse for one of his application essays to the MBA program at Duke, which he pursued after earning a degree in economics and political science from Denison. But why not, Warlick thought, marry his passion and his profession? He joined American Airlines in a financial role after his MBA, certain he’d be there for three years; this year marks his 24th with the airline, where he now works as vice president of corporate development.
But three years ago, during an executive physical, some worrying signs—muscle twitching, a poor performance in a stress test—led the doctor to recommend Warlick to a neuromuscular specialist. Six weeks later, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
Warlick focused on three things in the wake of the diagnosis. First, his wife and two kids—making sure they would have everything they needed when he was gone. Second, his personal health—“Who is doing research? Who are the smart people in this space?” That led him to doctors at Johns Hopkins and, eventually, to Answer ALS—a collaborative effort between 20 medical, academic, and commercial institutions that Warlick calls the “the largest, most comprehensive and most aggressive research program ever undertaken in the ALvS space.” And the best part, says Warlick: “All of the research is open source, available to anybody in the medical research community.” Resources that are developed by the program’s team (which includes just over 100 researchers), including patient biospecimens, cell lines, and ultimately, an estimated 6 billion data points per patient, will all be made available to researchers across the globe. “Discoveries have been made,” he says. “It’s going to break open, and given the way that the private sector has gotten involved—including companies like Microsoft and IBM—it has the ability to change the way neurological diseases are being treated and researched.”
And that discovery of the potential impact Answer ALS could have on the future of the disease led him to his third focus: Doing whatever he could to drum up financial support for its work. He launched Warlick’s Warriors last fall, kicking off an “Aviators Against ALS” campaign to raise money for Answer ALS with a million-dollar donation from his employer, American Airlines. Today, more than 24 companies from across the aviation industry, such as Boeing, GE Aviation, and Embraer have supported the campaign, in addition to finance companies like Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Bank. Since late 2016, Warlick’s Warriors has raised almost $5 million in this pursuit. In November, a star-studded gala to benefit Answer ALS (“Game Changer Gala”) was held in Seattle and featured entertainers such as Harry Connick Jr., Macklemore, Mike McCready and other Pearl Jam members, Judith Hill, and others. The event raised $3.3 million.
“I’ve been given a challenge that I need to go and meet,” Warlick says. “And that challenge is to go make a sizable difference in advancing and changing the prognosis for patients in the future—because it is highly unlikely that this will ever benefit me.”