Mary Ann Coleman and her siblings spent their summers playing baseball in an empty field across the street from their house at the corner of Mosby and Alabama avenues in downtown Memphis. They also worked in the family's garden. Coleman's three brothers raked and shoveled the dirt. She and her four sisters planted the produce: corn, okra, tomatoes, purple hull peas, onions, watermelons, collard greens and turnips.
One day in the late 1950s, construction crews showed up in the field. Coleman and her family watched the hubbub across the way—Interstate 40 and Danny Thomas Boulevard had not been built yet—from their front porch. The original star-shaped building of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital gradually rose before their eyes.
“We’d sit on the porch and shell peas and watch the hospital being built,” Coleman said. “After a while, you could see the five wings and it looked sort of like a star. But my brother used to tease us and say it looked like a spaceship.”
The distinctively shaped building would come to mean much more to her than she ever could have imagined.
A dream realized
In the early 1950s, entertainer Danny Thomas was looking for a city in the south to locate a children’s hospital. The hospital would be the completion of a promise that Thomas made to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes.
Before Thomas found professional success, he questioned whether to remain in his line of work. He knelt before a statue of St. Jude and asked for a sign. Thomas promised to erect a shrine to St. Jude if the saint would show him his way in life.
After he found success as a comedian and TV entertainer, Thomas began discussing with friends what form his vow might take. Cardinal Samuel Stritch was the archbishop of Chicago confirmed Thomas when he lived in Toledo, Ohio. Stritch, a native Tennessean, advised Thomas to build the hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1955, Thomas and a group of Memphis businessmen who had agreed to help support his dream decided to focus on creating a one-of-a-kind research hospital that was devoted to curing catastrophic diseases in children. The hospital would also be an international research center.
Memphis Mayor Frank Tobey designated May 12–22, 1955, as “Danny Thomas Week,” where Memphians were encouraged to “acquaint themselves with Danny Thomas and his admirable hopes and dreams for St. Jude Hospital.”
Noted African-American architect Paul Williams donated the design and plans of St. Jude to his friend, Danny Thomas. Williams designed the original hospital building in the shape of a five-pointed star, unaware that Thomas had created a logo that was fashioned in the same shape.
“Some people call this a nice coincidence,” Thomas said. “I call it the hand of God pushing Williams' pencil.”
Thomas stood before a crowd of 9,000 onlookers Sunday, February 4, 1962, as he unveiled a statue of St. Jude Thaddeus to signify the hospital's grand opening.
“A dream is one thing,” Thomas told the crowd. “A realization is something entirely separate. I publicly thank you, wherever you may be, for the support of this dream.”
A face in the crowd
Five-year-old Joy Sutherland was one of the 9,000 spectators in the crowd that bright and cloudless day. Her family and a large portion of the congregation at her nearby church, Harris Memorial Methodist, made the short walk to watch the opening ceremonies.
Sutherland's father, Ensley Tiffin, was an amateur videographer who chronicled events, filmed old buildings and recorded family gatherings with an 8-millimeter camera. She stood next to him as he filmed the grand opening.
Although she doesn’t remember that February day, Sutherland has one minute and 18 seconds of footage from the event housed on a DVD with other family moments from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
The video has no audio but includes establishing shots of the front of the hospital, which is decorated in red, white and blue regalia. Also featured are spectators mingling before the event, dignitaries presenting on stage and a closing shot of the newly unveiled statue of St. Jude Thaddeus, which still welcomes people at the hospital's entrance today.
“My dad was a big fan of Danny Thomas, and he had a great interest in history and in public affairs,” Sutherland said. “He tried to instill that interest in us. When we went on vacation, we tended to go to historic sites.”
Sutherland channeled that civic-mindedness into the study of political science. She entered the field of journalism, which eventually led her to health care and a role as a marketing communication strategist in the St. Jude Communications Department.
“When I started here at St. Jude, it was just overwhelming to see what had been built here—not just the physical buildings, but the mission. It was so much more than I ever thought it was,” said Sutherland, who joined St. Jude in February 2016.
A lifelong connection
Mary Ann Coleman's second-grade class at Merrill Elementary School visited St. Jude on a field trip in December 1962. The Sisters of St. Joseph oversaw the hospital’s administrative operations at that time, and Coleman remembers the nuns handing out chocolate-covered ice cream bars in the shapes of Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Although Coleman’s family eventually moved from their home in downtown Memphis, she dreamed of becoming a nurse. She entered her first year of school at then Shelby State Community College, but the demands of raising a young child took priority.
After working for a month at a nursing home, Coleman’s best friend, who is also named Mary Ann, asked if she would be interested in joining her at St. Jude as a nursing assistant. Coleman aced the interview and soon began working the day shift at St. Jude. Her first day at her first full-time job was August 30, 1976. She hasn't left since.
Coleman moved to a new role as file clerk in the Radiology Department in 1979. She’s now a DI records specialist in the Diagnostic Imaging Department. As the hospital and technology have grown, she has been right there for all the changes—making St. Jude a lifelong career.
“Never did I think I would end up working here,” Coleman said. “Now, St. Jude is just like a little city. I’m happy with how we’ve grown, the direction we have gone and what we have accomplished. To be a part of that for more than 40 years, it’s amazing.”