As a young man, Danny Thomas had a simple goal: to entertain people and be successful enough at it to provide for his wife and family. But work wasn’t easy to come by.
As he and his family struggled, his despair grew. He wondered if he should give up on his dreams of acting or find a steady job. He turned to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes. “Show me my way in life,” he vowed to the saint one night in a Detroit church, “and I will build you a shrine.”
That prayer to St. Jude marked a pivotal moment in his life. Soon after, he began finding work, eventually becoming one of the biggest stars of radio, film and television in his day.
And as one of the world’s biggest celebrities, Danny used his fame to fulfill his vow to St. Jude Thaddeus and to change the lives of thousands of children and families.
A unique research institution
Danny’s shrine to St. Jude Thaddeus was originally to be a general children’s hospital located some where in the south. Danny’s mentor, Cardinal Samuel Stritch, recommended he look to Memphis, Tennessee, the cardinal’s hometown.
By 1955 Danny and a group of Memphis businessmen he’d rallied to build the hospital decided it should be more than a general children’s hospital. At the time, the survival rate for childhood cancers was 20%, and for those with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) — the most common form of childhood cancer — only 4% of children would live. They believed that St. Jude could help these families with nowhere else to turn. St. Jude would become a unique research institution where the world’s best doctors and scientists would work together to cure childhood cancer, sickle cell and other deadly diseases.
And for families with children battling these diseases, Danny wanted to remove the burden of treatment costs so they were free to focus on their child.
The idea of his shrine to St. Jude set, Danny and his supporters focused on raising the funds to build and maintain it.
Funding the hospital
Danny began raising money for his vision in the early 1950s. By 1955, the Memphis business leaders who’d joined his cause also began local fundraising efforts. Danny also wanted to get the word out across the country about what he was doing and enlist the support of everyone he could.
Frequently, Danny and his wife, Rose Marie, crisscrossed the United States, speaking about his dream build St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to any group that’d listen, asking for their support. They kept such a hectic pace that Danny and Rose Marie once visited 28 cities in 32 days.
Along with the construction, Danny knew he had to find a way to fund the hospital’s annual operation. He turned to his fellow Americans of Arabic-speaking descent. Danny believed that by supporting St. Jude, this group of Americans could thank the United States for the gifts of freedom given their parents and also be a noble way of honoring their forefathers who’d immigrated to America.
Danny's requests struck a responsive chord. In 1957, 100 representatives of the Arab-American community met in Chicago to form ALSAC® with the sole purpose of raising funds for the support of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
Since that day in Chicago, ALSAC has been responsible for all the hospital's fundraising efforts, raising hundreds of millions annually through benefits and solicitation drives among Americans of all ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds.
Today, ALSAC is the nation’s second largest health care charity* and is supported by the generosity of 9 million donors and the efforts of more than 1 million volunteers nationwide.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened its doors on February 4, 1962. Since then, we’ve made incredible strides in childhood cancer research. We’ve helped improve the survival rate of childhood cancer from 20% to 80%. And ALL, the disease with a virtual death sentence in 1962, now has a survival rate of 94 percent.
Today, we’re a world leader in developing new, improved treatments for children with cancer, and we create more clinical trials for cancer than any other children's hospital. We freely share those breakthroughs, and every child saved at St. Jude means doctors and scientists worldwide can use that knowledge to save thousands more children.
And still today as when we opened our doors, families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food – because all they should worry about is helping their child live.
Danny Thomas passed away in 1991, but he left us with an enduring legacy and commitment to saving the lives of children everywhere. We won’t stop until no child dies from cancer.
*Based on the 2014 Philanthropy 400 ranking by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.