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The day St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened on Feb. 4, 1962, founder Danny Thomas made a prediction. Someday, he said, airline pilots flying over the city would point out St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to their passengers.
“They will say, ‘There’s the Star of Mercy … the property of Memphis and the state of Tennessee … the hope of children throughout the world.”
That’s what Bernie Doubler did.
As a pilot for Delta Airlines, Captain Bernie Doubler frequently flew into Memphis in the Boeing 757 or 767 he was piloting, passing right over St. Jude. And each time, he would mentally send a little hope and love to the children.
St. Jude has become a big part of Doubler’s life. A native Tennessean, Doubler said he remembers hearing as a child about Thomas opening a hospital in Memphis. His parents had always placed great value on charitable giving, so when Doubler grew up, he adopted St. Jude as one of his charities. “But St. Jude became my favorite,” he said.
Every quarter for the past 16 years—that’s 65 quarters—Doubler has continued what he calls his “Giving Streak” drawing a simile with the 56-game hitting streak of New York Yankee great Joe DiMaggio. But despite his giving, Bernie had never visited the hospital. In 1994, that changed. “I think the reason I was reluctant to come was because I thought I would see pain.”
Instead, Doubler witnessed just the opposite. “Instead I saw healing.” Doubler also came face to face with what he had helped accomplish.
He was taking a shuttle bus to the parking lot when a patient and family he had met earlier at a luncheon stepped aboard.
The little girl’s father sat down in the seat in front of Doubler. He turned around, looked him in the eye and said, “Thank you for helping save my little girl’s life.”
“It was like a thunderclap,” Doubler recalled. “It was one of the defining moments of my life. And that happened on my very first visit to the hospital.”
After that, Doubler felt a need to continue to visit the children. He thought he could visit with them and tell them about his job as a pilot, tell them how airplanes work, and—if only for a little while—make them forget that they were sick.
Now retired from aviation and recently married, Doubler and wife Becky were in Memphis last week, visiting with children and giving a presentation on the principles of flight to a group at the Ronald McDonald House. The group of children sat, listening intently as he broke down Bernoulli's principle of flight into terms they could understand and told them about the feat of the Wright brothers’ first flight on the shore of Kittyhawk, North Carolina.
He showed them clips from the movie The Spirit of St. Louis, about the daring flight of Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic. Doubler related Lindbergh’s dangerous—yet triumphant—journey to each of their lives.
“When Lindbergh made his epic flight … he overcame many obstacles along the way and many dangers,” Doubler said. He told the children that he knew they were fighting a long and difficult battle, but they must, like Lindbergh, never give up.
“Charles Lindbergh is one of my heroes,” he told them. “But you are also my heroes because you are all so brave.”
That bravery and determination of the children are the same forces that drove Lindbergh across the ocean, Doubler believes. He hopes his presentations keep that flame burning, for the children, for the parents and for the hospital.