Back in 1957, Joe Farris traveled to Atlanta with a group of friends to see Danny Thomas in a comedy show. Afterwards, the Lebanese entertainer and then-star of the Make Room for Daddy television series chatted with the group and asked Farris a question that would change his life: "Could you go back home and raise money for a hospital that will help children stricken with leukemia?"
Since then, Farris has not only raised funds each year for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. This month marks the 90th time he'll visit Memphis bearing gifts and making the day for hundreds of St. Jude kids.
"The reason I said yes," explains Farris, "is because the valedictorian of the class ahead of mine had died of leukemia a week before she was supposed to start college. I'd never heard the word before that, so Danny Thomas' question really touched me." After the show, Farris, a high-school teacher, went home to Douglas, Georgia, and with help from his family, fellow teachers, and students, launched a campaign that raised $1,000.
Five years later, when St. Jude opened on February 4, 1962, Farris and a group of students attended the ribbon-cutting. "We carried some checks up there," he recalls, "and Danny Thomas asked us what else we could do. I discussed it later with my students and they said, 'Why don't we have Christmas in July and you play Santa?' That year we chartered a Trailways bus for $500 and I carried 48 students to Memphis with toys the kids all donated."
The tradition has continued over five decades, with Farris and half a dozen students making the 500-mile drive to St. Jude in July, and again in December. With three schools participating, they bring with them hundreds of gifts, as well as a check representing funds Farris has raised.
Once his group arrives and all the gifts are arranged by age and gender, kids are lined up outside the St. Jude atrium to meet Santa. Farris asks each one's name and age, then repeats the information in a booming voice so hospital volunteers can hear him and select appropriate items for the child. With more than enough goodies to go around, leftover gifts are distributed throughout the year at birthdays or special occasions.
This year, Farris -- a retired high-school teacher in the gifted program, who still substitutes regularly and when asked his age replies, "Santa Claus is ageless" -- will sport a brand-new red velvet suit, compliments of a school fund-raiser. "They noticed last year my rear-end was worn out. So the home-ec class came up with the 'Sexiest Legs' contest for all the male students and people paid $1 to vote. They spent that money on a new suit and presented it to me on stage. The principal wore the pants and said, 'You won't get to show your bare bottom anymore.'"
Asked how long he'll tote toys to Memphis, Farris replies, "I've been in the hospital five or six times in the past couple of years. They say I died five times on the operating table. But I'm still making the trip. God must have this purpose for me."