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As small towns go, Ashland, Mississippi, was tiny, with a population of only 365 in 1955. But one little girl had a heart so big that she inspired the town to support the creation of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. And her spirit of giving to St. Jude lives on today.
Ann Hill was stricken with a rare muscle disease called amytonia that left her unable to move except for her fingers. But Ann never let the illness define her. So in 1955, when 9-year-old Ann heard a plea from entertainer Danny Thomas for funds to construct a hospital for children with catastrophic diseases, she rose to the challenge. Ann and her friends, Martha Grey Mitchell, Pat Hensley, Anita Roberts and Kay Farese set up a lemonade stand in front of the Western Auto store owned by Ann’s father. In two years, they had raised more than $1,000.
At the 1957 Shower of Stars event at Russwood Park in Memphis, Tennessee, Ann was wheeled on stage to present her check to Thomas. The moment began a long-time friendship between the entertainer, Ann and her parents, M.E. and Mildred Hill. Her work was so inspiring that Thomas called Ann “Spirit of ALSAC.”
“Everyone knew her and was touched by her,” said Patsy McCory, who graduated from Ashland High in 1967.
In June 2007, McCory and her fellow classmates organized a special reunion for the Ashland High School graduating classes from the 1960s, during which they honored the memory of Ann, who passed away in 1971.
The reunion committee tasked each graduating class to raise funds for St. Jude, Ann’s favorite charity. The group raised more than $10,000. Its goal is to raise $25,000, enough for a plaque honoring the Hills to be placed in the new Chili’s Care Center building, which will house the hospital’s brain tumor program.
“We all benefited from knowing Ann,” McCory said. “She had a thirst for life and wanted to make the most of every minute of her life.”
Indeed, Ann once said “I am bored stiff with people who constantly complain about the things they can’t do because of some real or imagined handicap. I’d much rather concentrate every ounce of my energy toward accomplishing the things that are within my power.”
And what was within her power was nearly anything. Ann and a group of friends and supporters, dubbed Ann’s Army by a newspaper reporter, were raising funds two years before the creation of ALSAC. Ann attended the grand opening of St. Jude on February 4, 1962, and in 1964 she was appointed state director of Mississippi for ALSAC. In that capacity, she helped coordinate hundreds of Teenage Marches and was directly responsible for raising more than $200,000 for the hospital.
Ann’s indomitable spirit came from her parents, who committed themselves to ensuring their daughter would have as many opportunities as any other children. They refused the advice to institutionalize Ann, choosing instead to care for her themselves. Ann’s ability to use her fingers was possible because her father taught her to pick up pennies. And as retired school teachers, both Mildred and M.E. home-schooled Ann, who eventually attended Northwest Junior College in Senatobia, Mississippi, before taking correspondence courses through the University of Mississippi.
Mildred, now 90, attended the reunion ceremony honoring the Hills for their work on behalf of St. Jude. She thanked all the classes for the accolades they bestowed on her family.
“The legacies of Ann Hill and Danny Thomas are intertwined,” said ALSAC Chief Operating Officer David L. McKee. “Her strength and determination to help other children was a driving force in the early days of fundraising and served as an inspiration to those in Ashland and the early founders of ALSAC. Every child that St. Jude sends home healed of these deadly diseases is a testament to the dedication of Ann, Mildred and M.E. We should all be as fortunate as to leave behind such legacies as Ann and Danny have.”