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This week, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital simultaneously celebrates its opening on Feb. 4, 1962, and remembers its founder, Danny Thomas, who died on Feb. 6, 1991.
Many people throughout the years have said that everyone should be so lucky as to leave a legacy as Danny Thomas has … a legacy that has helped raise the cure rates for all forms of pediatric cancer from less than 20 percent to more than 70 percent … a legacy that made a once common and deadly form of childhood cancer one of the world’s most curable.
It all began with his vow, kneeling in a Detroit, Michigan, church praying to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes. “If he was supposed to be the saint of the hopeless,” Thomas wrote in his book Make Room for Danny, “that certainly included me.”
Thomas was at a crossroads in his life. Should he get a regular paying, nine-to-five job and forget about show business? Or stay working in the field that he loved? “Show me my way in life and I will build you a shrine,” he prayed.
Thomas had been born in Deerfield, Michigan, on Jan. 6, 1912, and grew up in Toledo, Ohio, listening to stories from his mother, his Uncle Tony and the elderly bakery owner, Mrs. Feldman, whose store Thomas and his family lived over. Those stories from his mother and others ignited in Thomas a desire to entertain.
Along with helping to foster the story-telling abilities that would one day make him famous, Thomas’ mother also taught him a lesson in faith that would resurface when he made his vow to St. Jude. When his infant brother, Danny (from whom Thomas took his stage name) was bitten by a rat and doctors could not do anything to ward off the infection, Thomas’s mother prayed. She vowed that if God would spare her youngest son, she would walk door to door and beg pennies for the poor for an entire year. Little Danny recovered and Thomas’ mother made good on her vow, going door to door for an entire year, begging pennies for the poor. “I’m sure that that memory of her was the chief reason why I later kept my own vow to St. Jude when I made it,” Thomas wrote.
And made it Thomas did, becoming one of television's first and biggest stars with his series, Make Room for Daddy.
And through all his success, Thomas searched for a way to fulfill his vow to create a shrine for St. Jude Thaddeus. Thomas met with Samuel Cardinal Stritch, the man who performed Thomas’ Catholic confirmation service, to talk about this “shrine.” During the meeting, Thomas blurted out, “What about a hospital?” The Cardinal liked the idea and steered Thomas to Memphis, Tennessee … and to Memphian Ed Barry.
Barry along with Lemuel Diggs, MD, Michael F. Tamer and Thomas would form a core group of individuals that helped define and lead the efforts to create St. Jude.
Barry headed up the Memphis Steering Committee that would rally the Memphis community around Thomas' dream of building St. Jude. As work progressed, a medical advisory committee was named. Diggs, one of the committee members and a professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee Memphis and the only doctor in Memphis involved in the study of leukemia and sickle cell disease at the time, suggested that, instead of being a general care hospital, St. Jude be devoted to the study of childhood catastrophic diseases. It was a change that would prove to benefit children all over the world.
Raising the money to build and maintain St. Jude seemed a daunting task in those early days. Tamer had been president of the Midwest Federation of Syrian Lebanese American Clubs when he heard Thomas ask for support to raise the funds for St. Jude. From that meeting on, Tamer became Thomas’ right-hand man. He would become ALSAC’s first National Executive Director.
The idea for the hospital grew to become a research hospital, devoted to finding cures for children that had no hope, a place that, despite what medical textbooks said, would continue to search for a way to win the battle against these deadly diseases.
These men and countless other people from all walks of life helped St. Jude opened its doors. And within a decade, St. Jude had raised the cure rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) from 4 percent to 50 percent. And the scientists kept working to where, today, 80 percent of children with ALL will live.
For Thomas, the opening of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was more than a dream come true. “I believe show business has only been a vehicle to fulfill my destiny—to establish St. Jude,” he once said. “Founding that hospital is the highlight of my life. Thousands of children are alive today who otherwise would be dead if that place wasn’t there.”
Thomas worked for St. Jude until the day he died, having taken part in the hospital’s 29th anniversary and filming a new television commercial for the hospital. He had been signing copies of his autobiography in the Danny Thomas/ALSAC Pavilion on Feb. 4 when he pointed to the building's chapel. “I just want to live as long as the Lord allows me and then come here to be buried.”
Two days later, Thomas suffered a massive heart attack. On Feb. 9 in Memphis, Thomas lay in state in the very building he was signing autographs just a few days before, as thousands of Memphians and St. Jude patients and their families stood in line for hours on a bitter cold night to pay tribute to a man of extraordinary compassion. The Memphis Police Department estimated that the line stretched for more than a mile.
A number of newspaper political cartoonists took a day off from politics to pay tribute to Thomas and his dream. And though they were from cities in different states, nearly all of them had the same theme: an Angel, seeing the news that Danny Thomas had died, raises his voice to those behind the pearly gates and yells, “MAKE ROOM FOR DANNY!”