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More than 1,000 donors, partners, Board members and staff joined together June 21-23 in Memphis, Tennessee, to honor the 50th anniversary of ALSAC, the fundraising organization founded in 1957 for the sole purpose of supporting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
It was a celebration of the past as well as a look to the future as ALSAC/St. Jude continues the fight against pediatric cancer and other catastrophic diseases of childhood.
The legacy of the late entertainer Danny Thomas, founder of ALSAC and St. Jude, was woven into the three days of commemorative activities.
“Danny refused to shield his senses from human suffering,” said John P. Moses, chief executive officer for ALSAC, during the event. “Instead he would alleviate the suffering.”
Thomas’ founding of ALSAC and St. Jude is now legendary. As a struggling entertainer, he turned to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes, asking: “Help me find my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.” When he went on to become an icon of American entertainment, Thomas remembered that promise, which eventually took shape in the form of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
ALSAC, which was established five years before St. Jude opened, is now the third-largest health care charity in the world, conducting more than 30,000 events with the support of more than 1 million volunteers. This support has enabled St. Jude to rewrite the medical textbooks on childhood cancer, helping to improve the survival rate for childhood cancers from less than 20 percent to more than 70 percent. And Danny’s promise that financial concerns would not affect treatment has been honored: no family ever pays for treatments not covered by insurance, and families without insurance are never asked to pay.
Convention weekend began by honoring Richard C. Shadyac, who served as CEO of ALSAC from 1992-2005. The street that runs from Third Street to Front Street, west of the St. Jude campus, will be called Shadyac Avenue.
“This is a fitting moment in the evolution of the growth of St. Jude,” said Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton. “Richard Shadyac is a visionary, an excellent planner, and his focus, his tenacity, his dedication and his passion for St. Jude are unrelenting.”
Festivities continued on Friday night with the traditional Hafli, an event that recognizes and celebrates the Lebanese Syrian heritage of Danny Thomas and many founding members of the ALSAC/St. Jude Boards. Grammy®-award winner and long-time St. Jude supporter Tony Bennett, a friend of Danny Thomas, opened the evening with a private performance for attendees, his personal gift in honor of the 50th anniversary celebration.
“This is a great thing Danny Thomas started here,” Bennett said between songs. “God bless you all.”
Saturday morning featured a Patient Through the Decades session hosted by Moses. During the event, former patient Dwight Tosh delivered a stirring address. Tosh was admitted in April 1962, just two months after the hospital’s opening. His doctors in Arkansas told his family that there was nothing more they could do to combat the Hodgkin disease that threatened the 13-year-old’s life. Then he came to St. Jude where he became the 17th patient to be admitted to the fledgling hospital.
Now, 45 years later, the 58-year-old Tosh is the longest surviving St. Jude patient and he thanked donors, supporters, Board members and the staff of ALSAC for making his life possible.
“I’ve gone on to have a great life,” Tosh said. “I became an Arkansas state trooper. I married my high school sweetheart. I have two wonderful children and three grandchildren.”
Also in attendance were patients from each decade of St. Jude’s operation: Franz and Kathy Hoerdemann (1970s), Tranny Arnold (1980s) and Gabriela Salinas (1990s). Representing the 21st Century were the patient families of Christian Gizara, Claire Devins and Courtney Davis, who shared their stories of survival with the audience.
Following the Meet the Patients session, the Thomas family hosted their lunch at which they honor volunteers and others who have played a major part in supporting St. Jude.
(More on the volunteer awards)
The closing ceremony on Saturday night was highlighted by remarks from Moses, St. Jude Director and CEO William E. Evans, St. Jude National Outreach Director Marlo Thomas and a special performance by Randy Owen, of ALABAMA and co-creator of the Country Cares for St. Jude Kids® program.
Marlo, speaking of her father, said that on this 50th anniversary, “How proud he would be of all of you. How proud he would be of his grandchildren, singing out for ALSAC. And how proud he would be of ALSAC, the organization that was born in his heart and built on his faith. ... Fifty years later, you are still the warriors slaying the dragons that would take children from their mothers and fathers.”
(Read Marlo Thomas' remarks)
Moses opened his remarks with a recitation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which he called “the metaphoric rock upon which ALSAC was built—50 years ago.”
"Today," Moses said, "the responsibility of ALSAC is Herculean in scope—to maintain the largest pediatric research center in the world. Like the inn keeper who was left with the guardianship of the suffering man, we at ALSAC also stand guard. (Read John Moses' remarks)
Evans thanked ALSAC for making St. Jude's life-saving research and treatment possible. Joyce Aboussie, Chair of the ALSAC Board and the first woman to hold the position, reminded all those attending the gala event: “You are not fundraisers. You are life savers.”
Throughout the convention, video and print materials were used to recount the history of ALSAC, much of them featuring early video, audio and images of Danny Thomas and other historic figures who have made ALSAC and St. Jude the epicenter of pediatric cancer research in the world.