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On a Sunday afternoon in 1962, 11-year-old Robert Worden was visiting his aunt and cousins who lived in a housing project near Hwy. 51 in Memphis, Tennessee, when he spied a crowd across the street. He strolled over and joined the gathering, curious as to what could have brought all these people out on a cold February day?
Before he could get his answer, a man in a coat and tie came up to him and said, “Son, go inside and up the stairs and tell Mr. Thomas that we are ready.”
Though still perplexed about what was happening, the young man obliged, entered the building, walked up the stairs and knocked on the first door he saw. Another man in a coat and tie answered.
“I was told to tell Mr. Thomas they are ready for him,” Worden told the man.
The man at the door turned into the room and spoke to someone inside. Then Danny Thomas strolled out of the room and headed down the stairs to address the crowd who had gathered to celebrate the grand opening of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Forty-five years later, Worden, with his wife Donna, sat in the chapel of the Danny Thomas/ALSAC Pavilion, sharing his brief meeting with the hospital's founder. “God touched me,” Worden said about his chance encounter that eventually developed into his supporting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The Wordens were visiting the hospital during the Danny Thomas – St. Jude Society Luncheon. The luncheon is an annual event recognizing the contributors who have included St. Jude in their estate planning.
During her lifetime, Rose Marie Thomas, wife of St. Jude founder Danny Thomas, acknowledged the commitment of the Danny Thomas – St. Jude Society members. “They are joining in a personal way, in the lifetime dream of my husband, Danny Thomas. In doing so, members are ensuring the hospital’s growth and effectiveness, its preeminence in the world of medicine and its stature as a symbol of hope for children in the world.”
More than 200 donors from around the country came to the St. Jude campus to experience the hospital they have committed to helping through their long-term giving plans.
“You have the ability to positively affect children’s lives,” Tim Larson, senior director for Gift Planning told the crowd, “not just in your community, but around the world.”
The morning featured tours of the hospital and an array of speakers such as Pam Dotson of Nursing Administration and St. Jude Chaplin Brent Powell. Each shared their unique perspective on how St. Jude is able to bring hope and cures to children and their families.
Following the tours of the hospital, donors had a chance to hear from St. Jude Medical Director and Chief Executive Officer William E. Evans, PharmD, as well as ALSAC Chief Operating Officer David L. McKee, Mary Relling, PharmD, Les Robison, PhD, and local philanthropist Dr. Wayne Speer, who has underwritten the event for the past two years.
McKee thanked the supporters during lunch for their commitment to the hospital and illustrated St. Jude's impact on childhood cancers, asking all but about 12 of the 200-plus guests to stand.
“In 1962, of all of you standing, only this group seated would have survived acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” he said. Then he asked the 12 who had remained seated to stand and everyone else to be seated. “Today, all of you now seated are the survivors.”
Even with the advancements St. Jude has made, cancer still kills more children than any other disease. That's why the hospital's work must continue, McKee said.
Evans further emphasized the point. “Our goal is not to get bigger, but to get better,” he said.
When St. Jude opened, he added, “It was everything we could do to save the lives of the children stricken with cancer.” But as St. Jude continues to improve the survival rates, it is no longer enough to merely survive. Now, as part of its continued mission of finding cures and saving children, St. Jude can also look at improving the quality of life for the survivors.
For Richard and Socorro Simons of California, the visit gave them the first glimpse of the hospital they included in their estate planning almost two years ago.
“We never expected what we saw,” Socorro said after the luncheon. “I expected to see a regular hospital. I was not expecting to see a wonder world. We feel very humble to be a part of this,” she said.
“Donating our estate to St. Jude was the best decision my husband and I have made," she added. "We are relieved to see our estate going to such a great cause.”
“St. Jude is always growing,” Worden said as he reflected on being a part of that grand opening celebration in 1962 and how far the hospital has come today. “There is always something new. It is a living organism. And the need to be a part of it is contagious.”
The success of the hospital is a source of pride for him and his wife. Something they can look at and know they helped make a difference. Something they can point to and say they helped better mankind.
Or, as the man that 11-year-old Worden met some 45 years ago said, “Those who work for the good are as those who do the good.”