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The story behind the picture

Before the iconic image of a patient and St. Jude founder Danny Thomas made its way into a commercial, it sat in the treasured home of that patient's sister.

A black and white photo hanging on the wall of Deborah’s home is one of the few images remaining of her beloved sister, Lisa, who died at just 2 years old from leukemia. Danny Thomas, founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, sits on a rocking horse next to Lisa, showing her the joy and love that epitomizes his legacy.

And on one particular morning in November 2014, Deborah walked into the living room with her morning cup of tea to see that very photograph featured in a Mazda commercial about the legacy of Danny Thomas and Mazda’s commitment to St. Jude, which has totalled more than $6 million since 2013. Deborah was stunned, elated and ready to share her story with the world.

In 1965, Deborah was 11 years old. She and little sister Lisa were best friends, inseparable.

Lisa was the most loving child. I used to take her around the neighborhood and pretend that she was my baby. We loved playing hide and seek in the backyard.
Deborah Williamson remembering her late sister and St. Jude patient, Lisa Smith

Deborah Williamson holding a photo of her late sister and St. Jude patient, Lisa Smith

Deborah Williamson holding a photo of her late sister and St. Jude patient, Lisa Smith

That year, Lisa developed symptoms similar to whooping cough, but even after visiting her doctor, she wasn’t getting better. Lisa’s mother took her to St. Jude, the first integrated children’s hospital in the South, where Lisa was diagnosed with leukemia.

Her treatment included chemotherapy, but tragically, Lisa passed away that same year.

Deborah’s memories of the hospital at that time are few, but her fond memories of the positive impact of St. Jude are many.


This original photo of St. Jude founder Danny Thomas with Lisa Smith appeared in a Mazda commercial more than 40 years after it was taken.

“I know St. Jude did everything in their power to save Lisa, especially at that time,” she said. “It was so very early in learning about those diseases and cancers.”

Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20% to more than 80% since it opened more than 50 years ago. St. Jude is working to drive the overall survival rate for childhood cancer to 90%, and we won’t stop until no child, like Lisa, dies from cancer.

Lisa’s family still donates to St. Jude regularly and toured the hospital last year, noting the many changes and advancements in care that have occurred.

We are just so very proud of St. Jude and we do anything that we can. I’ve always said, ‘If I ever get a million dollars, St. Jude has it.'
Deborah Williamson

Deborah is grateful to the supporters of St. Jude. “The world can’t do without St. Jude,” she said. “So give and give as much as you can.”


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