Winter in Memphis, Tenn., can be cold and damp — not ideal weather for an outdoor celebration to open the doors of a new children’s hospital. But on the morning of February 4, 1962, the sun was shining brightly.
This was the day Danny Thomas would fulfill a promise made to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes. As a struggling young entertainer, Danny had prayed in desperation to St. Jude, saying “Show me my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.”
That shrine became St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the first hospital built for the sole purpose of conducting basic and clinical research and developing treatments for childhood cancer, sickle cell disease and other life-threatening diseases, and on this day, more than 9,000 people had gathered for the grand opening.
The 5,000-pound, 10-foot-tall marble statue of St. Jude Thaddeus was shrouded in fabric atop a 1,000-pound cornerstone. In the cornerstone were copies of the St. Jude and ALSAC (the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude) constitutions, as well as newspaper articles about the hospital and some coins.
Standing on a stage next to the statue, with the hospital he had founded as a backdrop, Danny told the audience about the 75 cents sealed into the cornerstone — from a boy he had encountered at a fundraiser in Peoria, Illinois. Blind and partially deaf, the boy had been inspired by Danny’s impassioned pleas and yelled from the back of the room, “I want to help the poor, sick kids.”
In his hand was an envelope containing a half dollar and a quarter. Before unveiling the statue, Danny acknowledged those from across the country whose generous acts — big and small — made this day possible.
“A dream is one thing. A realization is something entirely separate,” he said. “I publicly thank you, wherever you may be, for the support of this dream. It took a rabble-rousing, hook-nosed comedian to get your attention, but it took your hearts, loving minds and generous souls to make it come true.”
Danny’s wife, Rose Marie, his companion throughout the journey to build St. Jude, wept as he spoke, and then he unveiled the gleaming white marble statue. The first fully integrated children’s hospital in the South had officially been dedicated.
“If I were to die this minute,” Danny said, “I would know why I was born.”