Marlo Thomas’ dedication to St. Jude means keeping her father’s promise
Danny Thomas’ children grew up witnessing their father create the legacy St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It was a powerful lesson in determination, love, empathy and compassion, taught by example. His eldest daughter, Marlo Thomas, explains how his children picked up where he left off.
From the moment I was born, my dad was my knight in shining armor, like in one of those storybooks he’d read to me at bedtime. If I fell down and skinned my knee, he’d put me back on my feet. He’d wipe away my tears of disappointment if I failed any test. Whatever the challenge, there was never any question that Dad would be right there for me.
My father, Danny Thomas, was a good and loving man, a larger-than-life entertainer and a symbol of strength, not just for my brother and sister and me, but for thousands of other kids—children who needed a knight in shining armor far more than we did.
He had grown up in an impoverished immigrant home, and like all of the families in his neighborhood, none of them could afford to go to a doctor. His little friends died from things like influenza and appendicitis—medical conditions that were treatable if you could afford the treatment.
So, when Dad founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, he fought back against the indignity of those childhood memories by vowing that no family would ever receive a bill from his hospital—not for treatment, travel, housing or food.
Consider how that must have sounded at the time. Here was a hospital whose mission was to cure childhood diseases thought to be incurable; and even though it would rise from the ground in the segregated South of the 1960s, St. Jude would treat all children, regardless of the color of their skin or their religion or their family’s socio-economic station. For free.
Impossible? My father didn’t believe in “impossible.”
Calling himself “a proud beggar,” he’d crisscross the country to raise funds for St. Jude. Then he’d turn to his fellow entertainers—big names, like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Hope, George Burns, Nat King Cole, Dinah Shore, even a young Elvis Presley—to help.
It took years to raise the money to open St. Jude, often just a few dollars at a time. But Dad didn’t mind. He said he’d rather have one million people donate one dollar to St. Jude than one person donate one million dollars—because “that way, you’ve got a million people involved.”
Today, that relentless devotion to finding cures and saving lives still abounds in the heart of St. Jude.
Our promise to keep
My sister Terre, my brother Tony and I grew watching our father nurture the dream of building St. Jude, and after it was up and running, we’d visit the hospital and attend events. But through it all, Dad was very clear to us about what our role would be after he was gone. “This was my promise,” he told us. “St. Jude is not your burden to carry.”
But after Daddy died in 1991—just two days after joining patient families and staff at the hospital to celebrate the 29th anniversary of St. Jude—I returned to the hospital for a visit, and to let everyone know I was there if they needed me.
It was difficult. When I got to the driveway, with the fifteen-foot statue of St. Jude standing tall at the entrance, I sat in the car crying, trying to collect myself. It was all too fresh, and I didn’t want to cry in front of the children or their parents. They had enough heartache of their own.
When I finally made it inside, I saw a party in full swing. Ice cream and cake. Confetti and balloons. The happy clamor of children running around in party hats.
“Whose birthday is it?” I asked the nurse.
“Oh, it’s not a birthday party,” she said. “It’s a No More Chemo party.”
I was speechless. I had never seen anything like this before. Here were all these little kids celebrating and deriving strength from one child’s turn for the better, with their parents and grandparents standing by with tears in their eyes. If this child could make it, maybe their beloved child would, too.
At that party, a mother with a young patient approached me. The little girl was maybe 4 or 5, adorable, with a pink ribbon tied jauntily around her bald head. “Do you know who this woman’s daddy is?” the mother asked her child.
“Yes,” the little girl said confidently. “St. Jude.”
And I fell in love—with her, and with the spirit of this wonderful place.
My sister and brother and I had always understood our father’s deep commitment to St. Jude, but it wasn’t until after he left us that we breathed in what he had been holding in his heart for so many years. The more time we spent at St. Jude—meeting the children and their families, seeing firsthand the lifesaving medical work and groundbreaking research that goes on there every day—the more we realized that this was a place where hope lived.
‘He showed us how’
By the time we began our work for St. Jude, Terre, Tony and I had already found our places in life, and along with that, we’d found our own voices. Now it was time to raise those voices, together, to build on the legacy our father had left us.
Among our proudest accomplishments was conceiving and launching the annual St. Jude Thanks and Giving® holiday program, an unprecedented collaborative campaign that brings together retail and corporate partners, celebrities, media, and tens of thousands of supporters across the United States to raise money for the families of St. Jude.
We also took our place as board members and ambassadors for St. Jude, hosting and speaking at events, raising money, and filming radio and TV spots. Dad’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren have joined St. Jude’s mission, as well. His oldest granddaughter, Dionne Kirschner, created Yoga Gives to St. Jude Kids in a single yoga studio in Los Angeles, and expanded it into a nationwide fundraiser. His grandson, Jason Thomas Gordon, a musician, founded Music Gives to St. Jude Kids, enlisting some of the biggest names in the music industry to encourage their fans to donate to St. Jude.
But it’s more than just our family carrying on Danny Thomas’ lifesaving legacy. It’s every donor who sends in a check. Every business that partners with St. Jude. Every doctor and researcher and technician who explores the depths of science to find cures. And everyone who works tirelessly at ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization Dad founded, which continues to keep the lights on at St. Jude 24 hours a day.
I wish Dad could see St. Jude now. What began in 1962 as a single, star-shaped building nestled in the green hills of Memphis has blossomed into a 66-acre campus, where cutting-edge treatment and research have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent when the hospital first opened to more than 80 percent in the new century.
St. Jude has affiliate clinics across the country, and hospital and foundation partners around the world. Because when Dad said, “No child should die in the dawn of life,” he didn’t mean no American child. He meant no child—anywhere.
If Dad could walk through the halls of St. Jude today, I know how amazed and proud he would be at how far his dream has come. And he would say, ṡaḣḣain. That’s Lebanese for “God bless.”
And so I say, thank you, Daddy. Rest easy. We’re wearing your shining armor now. We’re keeping your promise.