The success of one of South Florida’s most impactful charities grew from the friendship between two women: Margaret “Peggy” Banick and Schatzi Kassal.
Up to the time of Banick’s death from complications of diabetes on July 10 at 82, the pair were best friends for 57 years.
Both knew the struggles faced by parents whose babies were born with health problems. Banick’s oldest daughter Barbara and son Richard (who predeceased her) had medical issues in their infancies as did Kassal’s son Bubba. Resources were few into the early-1970s.
Both took action. By 1973, Kassal learned from Jackson Memorial pediatric surgeon Dr. Marc Rowe of the plight of premature babies. Neonatal intensive care units were unheard of.
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The friends leaped to action. Kassal founded Project: New Born to open and support the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in the Holtz Children’s Hospital at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center.
Banick became a founding member and its treasurer. Funds raised by Project: New Born go toward research, equipment, salaries of key personnel and advocacy programs for premature and high-risk babies. The women built an organization that has since raised more than $20 million and has 4,500 members.
“Her compassion, enthusiasm and hard work played a key role in the success of this philanthropic organization that has contributed so much to the research and clinical activities of the UM-JMH Neonatal Program,” said Dr. Eduardo Bancalari, director of neonatology at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System.
“Peggy Banick’s vision and leadership helped to attract a large number of volunteers who, throughout the years, joined Project: New Born in their commitment to improve the care of critically ill newborns in South Florida,” Bancalari continued. “She was joined in this effort by her family and especially by her beloved husband, the late Richard Banick, who was also a stalwart supporter of Project: New Born and its mission. The Neonatal Program at UM-JMH and the most vulnerable South Florida children have lost one of its greatest advocates.”
For Kassal, she lost a best friend who embodied the expression: She had my back.
“You can have a lot of friends in this world and there are those that are very special,” Kassal said. “You look back on your life and wonder: ‘Have I accomplished anything?’ ‘Have I made a contribution?’ ‘Have I really done something worthwhile?’ Watching from the outside, I would have to say she used every moment she had to the best of her ability and gave the world a great deal of wonderful quality time. She gave of herself a little beyond what most people do and in that regard, she’ll be sorely missed by many people. But by me especially.”
She did everything with a smile on her face even in the worst situations. She was always witty, the one-liners, she would just drop them.
Stacey Banick on her mother, Peggy Banick.
For Banick’s youngest daughter, Stacey, she lost an inspiration.
“She was the strongest person I know with the biggest heart,” Banick said of her mother. “Completely selfless. There wasn’t anything she could not do. No matter what was thrown her way she never backed down. She did everything with a smile on her face even in the worst situation.
“I am definitely strong and I owe everything to her: my best friend, my mentor, my greatest inspiration in my life,” she added. “You stay positive. You smile. And you never let them see what is going on.”
Banick, a member of The Young Patronesses of the Opera, was born on June, 30, 1934, in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. She spent her freshman year at Westminster College where she met the captain of the football team, Richard Banick. In May 1953, the two wed and moved to Miami and were married nearly 63 years until his death in February.
As one of the “Founding Babes,” Banick tapped her flair for party planning to grow the Project: New Born galas from an initial gathering of fewer than 50 guests to grand affairs with lavish themes: The World of the Orient. Going Greek Gala. On Safari. A Peace of the East. The latter gala, befitting Laurence of Arabia at the Sheraton Bal Harbour, drew more than 700 for the 10th annual in 1983.
“At the Italian Affair, she made 100 gigantic paper flowers to decorate the ballroom in the old Diplomat Hotel circa 1976. She decided it wasn’t enough and went home and made 100 more,” Kassal said in her eulogy.
As Miami’s philanthropic scene expanded, the pressure was on for charities to concoct events that were interesting, entertaining and different — not just the standard dinner dance.
“It’s a question of how you’re going to secure your money. What’s going to sell these people and make them want to come,” Banick said in a 1987 Miami Herald society feature.
Banick was honored by the University of Miami’s School of Medicine with its Humanitarian of the Year award in 1988. In the mid-’80s, Banick partnered with another friend, Renee Fink, to start the party supply business, Table Toppings, which, for about 10 years, rented high-end table cloths and chair covers for local events. She donated the materials to Project: New Born fund raisers.
“More, that was how Peggy lived. She was incredibly generous and gave more of herself to everyone,” Kassal said in her eulogy. “She cared more about those in need, even the wild horses deserted after Hurricane Andrew. More about justice for all. More about anti-discrimination, about school projects, about the Girl Scouts, more about doing the right thing.”
Banick is survived by her daughters Barbara, Bindy and Stacey Banick. Donations can be made to Project: New Born. Services were held.