Courtesy St. Jude
He wasn’t always “Danny Thomas.” Alphonsus Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz Jacobs came into this world on January 6, 1912. One of nine children born to Lebanese immigrants living in Deerfield, Michigan, the family later moved to Toledo, Ohio, and anglicized Alphonsus’ first name to Amos.
The boy’s first job was as a “candy butcher,” selling soda and sweets in the Empire Burlesque Theatre in Toledo. That was his first glimpse of the exciting world of show business, and when Amos Jacobs decided to try his hand at it, he borrowed the names of his two brothers to come up with his stage name: Danny Thomas. Not only was the new moniker easier to spell and pronounce, but the young man wanted a pseudonym so that his friends and family wouldn’t know if his showbiz aspirations didn’t work out.
As a struggling performer, Thomas one day gave away his last six bucks to a church needing funds for missionary work. Later, he prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, and asked him to return the money tenfold. The very next morning, he got a call to do a radio commercial for Maytag washing machines. The pay: $75.
While living in Toledo, Thomas was confirmed by Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Stritch, who was a native of Tennessee. Later, when he met Stritch again — now serving as the archbishop of Chicago — and told him his plans to honor St. Jude, Stritch persuaded the entertainer to locate his new hospital in Memphis.
Two Memphians also played key roles in bringing the new hospital here. They were both Stritch’s friends: local attorneys John Ford Canale and Edward Barry. The latter was already a board member of several Memphis hospitals, and an expert fundraiser. According to Thomas, Stritch told him, “If Mr. Barry takes you on, you stay in Memphis, and you will build your hospital. If he says, ‘No, it’s too much,’ you must get on your Arabian steed and go someplace else.” Barry took him on, and Thomas chose Memphis.
The first fundraiser for the new hospital took place in a Chicago theater in 1951, where Thomas’ new film I’ll See You in My Dreams premiered. The event raised $51,000. In From His Promise, Thomas related, “It’s funny how that number has haunted me for years. I catapulted out of the ‘5100’ nightclub in Chicago, we collected $51,000 at our first major benefit, and St. Jude Hospital is built on Highway 51 in Memphis.”
Although best known for his starring role in Make Room for Daddy (1953-1965), Thomas was the producer of such hit series as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Real McCoys, and The Mod Squad.
This may come as a surprise, but when Thomas first approached Memphis leaders with his plans and dreams for St. Jude, the local medical community wasn’t impressed, since most doctors here felt the city’s existing hospitals were meeting the needs of children.
Memphis Mayor Frank Tobey designated May 12-22, 1955, as “Danny Thomas Week” and the people of Memphis were encouraged to “acquaint themselves with Danny Thomas and his admirable hopes and dreams for St. Jude Hospital.” The event brought its first individual gift — a check for $2,000 from businessman Nat Buring — and drew 15,000 to a fundraiser on May 27th at Crump Stadium. Among the performers: Elvis Presley.
In 1957, Thomas met with Arab-American leaders to encourage their support of St. Jude. According to From His Promise, “Danny said that by maintaining this hospital, Americans of Syrian-Lebanese descent” — like himself — “could join together for the first time and honor their parents who had come to the United States seeking a brighter future for themselves and their children.” The result of that meeting was the formation of the hospital’s chief fundraising arm, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, better known today as ALSAC. (See our story on the "Fundraising Powerhouse" in this issue for an account of ALSAC’s role in the support of St. Jude.)
By 1958, ALSAC had opened more than 140 chapters in 35 states to help raise funds for St. Jude. That first year, members considered it a challenge when they were told they needed to raise a total of $300,000, but they met that goal. In fiscal year 2010, ALSAC raised more than $735 million for St. Jude, and today it organizes more than 34,000 fundraising events annually.
Among his many far-flung business ventures, Danny Thomas was one of the original owners of the Miami Dolphins NFL team.
It was quite a public-relations stunt and a dramatic beginning for St. Jude: On November 2, 1958, Danny Thomas used his ever-present cigar lighter to set fire to a decrepit downtown building, to clear the 17-acre property on Lauderdale for the new hospital. Sometime later, he manned firehoses and helped firemen put out the flames. A groundbreaking ceremony followed, using a spade blessed in accordance with Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant beliefs.
Thomas hired a noted African-American architect, Paul Williams, to design the new hospital. Williams, who fully embraced the concept, did the work for free. (For more about Williams, see “Ask Vance” in this issue.)
Dr. Donald Pinkel, the hospital’s first medical director, made a significant change to the building’s design. He eliminated a proposed surgical wing, and instead linked St. Jude to nearby St. Joseph Hospital with a tunnel. The St. Jude medical staff would be able to use St. Joseph’s existing (and excellent) surgical facilities, freeing up more space at St. Jude for research.
The gleaming new hospital was officially dedicated on the morning of February 4, 1962, by Danny Thomas, who unveiled a magnificent statue of St. Jude standing at the entrance. That statue is carved from marble that came from the De Praty Statuary in Rome. The 5,000-pound artwork stands 10 feet tall and is mounted on a 1,000-pound cornerstone — both personal gifts from Danny Thomas. At the unveiling, Thomas told the crowd, “To those of you who are Catholic, this is a symbol of our faith in St. Jude as the patron saint of hopeless causes and our dedication of this hospital as a shrine fulfilling a promise made to him.” He paused, then continued, “To all of you who are of different beliefs, it’s still a pretty nice statue.”
The cornerstone contains various St. Jude and ALSAC documents, newspaper articles about the hospital — and 75 cents. During an early fundraising trip to Peoria, Illinois, Danny encountered a little boy who — though blind and partially deaf — said he “wanted to help the poor, sick kids” and handed Danny a half dollar and a quarter.
Recognizing that Memphis lies near the New Madrid Fault, engineers designed St. Jude to resist Zone 3 earthquake damage — the first building in the city constructed this way.
St. Jude was the first completely integrated hospital in the South — a condition demanded by both Danny Thomas, Cardinal Stritch, and others. Though this may not seem shocking today, having black doctors treat white patients, or even putting white and black patients in the same waiting rooms, was unheard of in the South in the early 1960s.
The hospital has actually had three names. It was incorporated in 1959 as St. Jude Hospital. It opened in 1962 as St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Four years later, the name officially became St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
When the hospital first opened in 1962, it had a staff of about 100. The first patient admitted — on March 16, 1962 — was Jonathan Britton, who was suffering from leukemia. Only 126 patients were treated that first year. Today, St. Jude treats almost 6,000 patients yearly.
In the early days, St. Jude arranged for patients’ families to stay downtown at the Hotel Claridge. Today, families have three modern facilities available to them: the Memphis Grizzlies House for short-term stays (one to seven days), the Ronald McDonald House for mid-term lodging (eight to 90 days), and the Target House for long-term stays (more than 90 days).
Dr. Donald Pinkel, head of pediatrics at Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo, New York, was hired in 1961 as St. Jude’s first medical director. His salary was $25,000. Pinkel can take credit for many of the hospital’s early accomplishments, and in 1970 was able to make the astonishing announcement, “Leukemia can no longer be considered an incurable disease.” Before St. Jude, leukemia was generally considered fatal, but within 10 years the hospital was seeing a 50 percent cure rate.
The first research grant — $10,000 awarded to Dr. Lemuel Diggs for his work on the causes of sickle-cell anemia — was awarded before the hospital was even completed in 1962.
While Danny Thomas was the public “face” of St. Jude, Memphis attorney Edward Barry played a key role as chairman of the board from 1960 to 1982. Barry has been described as “the greatest friend St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has” and garnered tremendous community support, sometimes even writing personal checks to cover the costs of much-needed medical equipment. Not only did he co-sign the $600,000 note for the facility’s construction, but by the time of the hospital’s dedication in 1962, Barry had personally contributed more than $50,000.
In late 1985, Memphians were shocked to learn that St. Jude might be leaving Memphis. The newspapers and tv stations announced that the medical community of St. Louis — home to prestigious Washington University and a burgeoning medical center downtown — was luring St. Jude to their city. After tense meetings between the Memphis and Shelby County mayors and city council, hospital officials, ALSAC, and everyone else involved, the ALSAC/St. Jude board voted at its February 1986 meeting to remain in Memphis.
In 1996, Peter Doherty, Ph.D., of the St. Jude Immunology Department, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. He shared the award with Rolf M. Zinkernagel, M.D., of the University of Zurich. Their findings have led to breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of viral infections and cancers.
St. Jude is the coordinating institution for the Childhood Cancer Survivor Study. By collecting self-reported health survey information from more than 20,000 patients, it is the most comprehensive body of data ever assembled on childhood cancer survivors.
The hospital is home to a unique art gallery. The Gallery of Expression showcases art created by teen patients undergoing treatment at St. Jude.
Each spring, St. Jude organizes a teen formal for patients ages 13 through 19, who might otherwise miss their high-school prom. Gowns and tuxedoes are available for patients, and stylists are brought in to do makeup, hair, and manicures.
So that patients don’t miss out on their schoolwork, St. Jude has its own classrooms and teachers who work with patients’ teachers back home to keep them up to date on their education. The hospital even holds graduations for kindergarten and high-school students, so that patients won’t miss out on these important milestones in their lives.
Over the years, individuals have conducted their own personal fundraisers for St. Jude. In 1980, Memphis restaurateur John Grisanti paid $31,000 for a 158-year-old bottle of Chateau Lafite. More than 200 people paid $200 each for a sip of the old wine — raising $53,000 for the hospital.
In 2011, Memphian Wei Chen, president of the construction materials firm Sunshine Enterprises, became the first Chinese pilot to circle the globe in a single-engine plane. He used that 10-week voyage to drum up support and funds for St. Jude, eventually contributing $250,000 to the hospital.
ALSAC events and other fundraisers provide major sources of revenue. But some donations come from unexpected sources. In 1995, officials at St. Jude received an anonymous letter postmarked from Dallas, Texas, containing nothing more than a cardboard game piece from a Monopoly game promotion being conducted by McDonald’s. It wasn’t considered much of a gift until somebody realized this was the winning piece — worth $1 million. Although game rules actually prohibited the transfer of prizes, McDonald’s waived that rule and each year since has made a $50,000 payment to the hospital.
It’s a minor thing, but it’s one of the details that makes the hospital stand out, and people often ask about it: “Coral Spar” is the name of the distinctive shade of pink used on most St. Jude buildings.
Expansions over the years have greatly enlarged the size of the original St. Jude campus. The hospital now occupies more than 2.5 million square feet of research, clinical, and administrative space — the equivalent of 53 football fields.
Despite its sprawling campus, St. Jude has only one cafeteria. That was a deliberate design request from Danny Thomas, who felt the dining hall should be the heart of the hospital, where the entire St. Jude community could meet and interact.
St. Jude treats some 5,900 patients annually. Children have come from all 50 states and around the world.
Although the Memphis campus is the heart of St. Jude, the hospital doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It is actively affiliated with six other hospitals around the country: St. Jude Midwest Affiliate in Peoria, Illinois; LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, Louisiana; Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; the St. Jude Tri-Cities Affiliate in Johnson City, Tennessee; Huntsville Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Huntsville, Alabama; and St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Missouri.
St. Jude is the only pediatric cancer research hospital where families never pay for treatment not covered by insurance. No child is ever denied treatment because of the family’s inability to pay.
The staff of St. Jude recognizes that it’s difficult to battle cancer alone. Each year, the hospital hosts Sibling Star Day, set aside to honor patients’ brothers and sisters for their roles in the healing process.
In 1992, the original St. Jude facility was demolished to make room for the Patient Care Center, a four-floor facility that includes the hospital’s pharmacy, business offices, inpatient rooms, playrooms, a learning center, and more.
St. Jude has its own garden that produces fresh produce and herbs. This shortens the time between harvesting and processing, which keeps the food’s nutritional value high and provides healthier fare for the staff, patients, and family.
In its 50-year history, only five people have served as medical director and CEO of St. Jude: Dr. Donald Pinkel (1962-1973), Dr. Alvin Mauer (1973-1983), Dr. Joseph Simone (1983-1992), Dr. Arthur W. Nienhuis (1993-2004), and Dr. William E. Evans (2004 to the present day).
In 1960, the Memphis Open golf tournament gave a $600 check to St. Jude, and the event — renamed the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic (now the Federal Express St. Jude Classic) soon became one of the major fundraising events for the hospital. It has always attracted the biggest names in sports and the worlds of entertainment and politics. One of the best-known events came in 1977, when former president Gerald Ford hit a hole-in-one in the pro-am tournament and presented the ball to St. Jude to be auctioned as a fundraiser.
One of our city’s largest employers, St. Jude has more than 3,600 employees, supported by a full-time fundraising staff of almost 900 at ALSAC, the nation’s second-largest healthcare charity.
The original construction cost for the entire hospital was $2.5 million, and the project went to Southern Builders of Memphis. Today, St. Jude’s daily operating cost is $1.7 million, with an annual budget of $636.5 million.
The hospital is supported by more than 1 million volunteers and 5 million donors who help with fundraising events.
A downtown landmark, the gold-domed ALSAC-Danny Thomas Pavilion was dedicated on November 3, 1982. In addition to presenting the history of Thomas’ career — complete with dozens of trophies and awards — and the founding of St. Jude, the pavilion is the last resting place of Danny and his wife, Rose Marie. Thomas died on February 6, 1991, at the age of 79. Speaking at his memorial service, Bishop Daniel Buechlein of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Memphis said, “Indeed, his place of rest promises that he will be an immemorial reminder and symbol of the power of prayer of one single person, the power of prayer when all seems hopeless.”
Danny Thomas also, in a way, rescued Beale Street. During a 1950s visit to Memphis, he learned that all east-west streets in Memphis were actually called avenues, meaning that the home of the blues was technically “Beale Avenue.” Thomas quickly wrote a hit song, “Bring Back My Beale Street,” which was such a hit that Mayor Frank Tobey issued a proclamation announcing that Beale was once again a Street. As you might expect, all proceeds from the sale of the song went to St. Jude.