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Pat Arnell remembers when up-and-coming comedian Danny Thomas spoke at St. Andrews, her California high school. “We all thought that he was very funny,” she recalls. Thomas spun yarns and spoke of his devotion to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes. That was almost 60 years ago, before Thomas had realized his remarkable rise to stardom and success. If he harbored dreams of building a hospital in Memphis, he didn’t mention them.
Pat thought his visit was a nice distraction from schoolwork and nothing more. Yet, years later, she and her husband would fund an endowed chair at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the hospital borne of Thomas’ promise to the saint.
Walter Arnell, PhD, was once academic dean of engineering at California State University at Long Beach. He taught what is today known as engineering psychology, the science of designing better machine systems by using knowledge of how humans sense, store and process information. It’s heady stuff, and scientists can get lost in their work. The popular professor made quite an impression on one of his students.
“He thought I looked lonely,” Walter says, “and he set me up on a blind date with his friend Pat.”
The date went extremely well. Last year, the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They have two daughters and four grandchildren.
After positions at the University of Hawaii and University of Arizona, Walter now refers to himself as “retired and tired,” but he’s not inactive. He and his wife have begun a second life making documentaries and collecting miniatures. They also discovered St. Jude.
Twenty years ago, Pat found that her ailing mother was a dedicated St. Jude supporter. Remembering her encounter with Thomas, Pat took up the cause. She and Walter, who gradually increased donations as they learned more about St. Jude, appreciated that most of the money raised goes directly to helping the children and that medical findings are shared freely and globally.
The couple’s genuine interest led to a tour of the hospital and a meeting with Michael Kastan, MD, PhD, Cancer Center director. “We immediately liked him,” notes Walter. “He was full of vim, vigor and enthusiasm—you could see his leadership.”
Pat and Walter decided to establish an endowed fund to support Kastan’s work, which has provided breakthroughs that could affect the hospital’s ability to treat a broad range of catastrophic diseases.
While the scientific problem-solving at St. Jude appeals to the Arnells, their emotional ties to the hospital first inspired them to get involved.
“By taking science and applying research, St. Jude gives these children hope,” Walter says. It’s an alchemy that Danny Thomas well understood. For Thomas, faith and intellect went hand-in-hand. Belief in the power of prayer led him to found a research hospital that has saved countless children’s lives, and the Arnells have become a special part of this mission.
Reprinted from Winter 2007 Promise magazine.