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The Patron Saint of St. Jude

Danny Thomas: His starring role is helping kids


For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, September/October 1987.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Thomas: Born to build a hospital for children with cancer.
(Photos by David L. Cornwell/Coping)

Seated at a desk chair in the study of his palatial Beverly Hills estate, Danny Thomas twirls his cigar like a conductor with a baton. It's a tool, a precision instrument used to direct the music of conversation. "I admire people who know why they are born," comes the familiar, gruff voice.

"I admire people who can stand at the mirror, and when they get an answer about why they are born, pursue it."

As he builds to a crescendo, he leans forward and with absolute conviction adds: "I was born to build St. Jude."

Period. No equivocation. The voice is confident, even commanding. The legendary Hollywood actor-philanthropist founder of the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis - isn't one to dwell on cosmic subtleties.

He is a simple, straightforward man of enormous energy and spiritual solidity who learned more than four decades ago why he was put on this earth and never, ever forgot it.

Today, Thomas is as well-known for his paternal relationship with St. Jude, as well as children's cancer research, as he is for his starring role in "Make Room for Daddy," the comedy show of the '50s that hoisted him onto a pedestal of fame and fortune few achieve.

"I was born to build St. Jude."

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

(Courtesy of St. Jude Hospital, Memphis)

At 75, the funny man with the big nose is celebrating St. Jude's 25th anniversary. But even though he estimates that he's raised at least $1 billion for the 48-bed facility over the years, his financial contributions signify only a part of his belief in the power of giving.

"I am in the life-saving business, not the fund-raising business," declares Thomas, a Roman Catholic. "My religion is St. Jude. Sometimes I get angry. No, not angry. Demanding. I demand. I tell people, 'These are everybody's kids.' This is not a charity. Taking care of kids is a responsibility.

"I'm no genius. I'm dyslexic. I can't spell. But I felt there was a need for a place where you can zero in on an age group from birth through 18, a place where there is camaraderie. If one kid makes it, there is a feeling among the others, 'I can make it too.' "

Free care
Since its dedication in 1962, St. Jude has treated, free of charge, 10,000 children with the most devastating kinds of childhood maladies: acute lymphocytic leukemia, Hodgkin's disease and other forms of cancer, sickle cell anemia and pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, which is the most common and often the first infection to afflict people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

St. Jude is the largest pediatric cancer research center in the world and the first institution to conduct basic and clinical investigations into catastrophic childhood diseases. To qualify for admittance, patients must be referred by their own physicians after extensive testing has indicated that they're suffering from a disease that the hospital's researchers are studying.

When it opened, the hospital - which cost $6.1 million to build - was less than half its current size. Today, it's a steadily expanding, 221,000 square-foot facility that emphasizes outpatient treatment. It handles 20,000 annual visits and operates on a $50-million yearly budget.

"Danny Thomas is our spiritual leader," says Dr. Joseph V. Simone, the hospital's director. "St. Jude is a very special place. We aren't just a childrens' hospital or a research institute - we're both.

"I know this sounds corny, but it is a noble cause."

In the late '60s and early '70s, St. Jude was one of the first institutions to show results by treating several types of leukemia with innovative drug combinations; VM-26, used with other agents, stands out.

Only two decades ago, the survival rate for children with acute lymphocytic leukemia was 5%. Today, that figure has jumped to above 50%, while the odds of survival have improved for many solid tumor forms of cancer, as well as rare blood diseases.

By the year 2000, Simone predicts that the treatment of children's cancer will be quite different than it is today: "There is the possibility that treatment will be much more precise and much less toxic."

St. Jude scientists recently won more national attention for their work on a protocol that monitors the dosage of methotrexate, a commonly prescribed anti-cancer drug. The past few years' research projects have centered on developing a chemotherapy regime for leukemia patients who have relapsed - a procedure that can sometimes spare them the harrowing ordeal of a bone-marrow transplant.

Steadier job
For Thomas, the spiritual seeds of this immense project were planted almost half a century ago on the eve of World War II when he was a discouraged, $2-a-night saloon comic in Detroit. His wife, Rose Marie, was struggling to raise their young family on a very tight budget; she finally told her husband it was time to get a steadier job.

"An Irishman in his cups came to me in the club and said, ‘Sit down. I got to tell you about St. Jude'," Thomas recalls. After explaining that his own prayers to the patron saint of the hopeless had cured his wife's cancer, the man left Thomas with a pamphlet. The same day, Thomas went to church by himself to pray for guidance. "I took out the pamphlet and said, 'Help me find my way in life'."

Even though he has received more awards than many heads of state, Thomas says getting a gold medal at the White House was the most thrilling, and terrifying, of all.

Acting on impulse, he promised to erect a shrine to St. Jude if he got a shot at show business success. The saint came through on his end of the bargain first.

The big break came the night Thomas walked into Madison Square Garden's spotlight, an unknown comedian whose legs wobbled with stage fright.

"I was introduced as Danny Kaye in front of 22,000 people," Thomas remembers of the performance that catapulted him into the Big Time in less than an hour. "I wet my pants. I was so nervous my tuxedo actually rippled in the spotlight."

"But somehow, I hit the long ball," he adds, shaking his head in disbelief. "I killed them. I don't know why."

Not long after, he founded the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, now the research center's fund-raising branch.

Thomas' star not only flickered, it soon glowed as one of the brightest in the entertainment galaxy. He became a fixture on television and in clubs around the world.

With the passion of a TV evangelist - an occupation he confesses he would've been good at - Thomas has since traveled worldwide to shepherd support for his shrine. Over the years, he has appeared at hundreds of fund-raisers and corporate shindigs, and enlisted the support of high-rolling buddies like George Burns, Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra, for whom St. Jude's sixth floor is named.

He also has sponsored every kind of "thon" imaginable - walk-athons, bike-athons, haircut-athons, dance-athons, math-athons. Of the later, Thomas observes, "We help kids who are dying and help kids with their math at the same time."

Now, he devotes more time to the hospital than most people do to full-time jobs.

"St. Jude is my baby," he says. "Every time I see a kid hurting, it reaffirms my vow and my goal. I built the place. The workmen went too slow for me. I moved wheelbarrows!"

• • •

Born Amos Jacobs on Jan. 6, 1912, in Deerfield, Mich., Danny Thomas is the fifth son in a family of eight boys and one girl. His Lebanese parents reared them in the ghettos of Toledo, Ohio.

Thomas says he inherited his faith from his mother, a simple woman who came to this country when she was 10: "She always said, ‘No matter how little you have, God 'will provide.'

"We'd say, ‘So where are the hot dogs? Other people have them.' She'd say, 'Maybe they've done something we haven't done.'

"Every day, she begged pennies for poor people. Every day. She had made a vow. One of her children had been bitten by a rat in his crib and he turned black and blue. She made a promise to God that if he spared her child, she'd do something in return. So every day, she'd walk the streets of Toledo wearing her babushka, and say with a heavy accent, 'Please, a penny for the poor.'"

As he speaks, the man best known for his portrayal of the miseries of the world's little people is both sentimentalist and preacher, poet and wit. One minute, his sermon is philosophical: "My purpose in life is to propagate the philosophy of man's faith in man, based on my own belief that unless man re-establishes his faith in his fellow beings, he can never establish a faith in God."

The next, the message is comic: "President Reagan has admitted being embarrassed by having 'Hail to the Chief' played every time he enters a room. But he said it was worse for me because when I walk in, they play Handel's 'Messiah.'"

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

In his trophy room: "You do the best you can and leave the rest in the hands of the divine director."

Seated in his study with a wide-angle view of Hollywood, Los Angeles, and the Pacific Ocean, Thomas conveys a high degree of street-wise smarts and pampered poise. He's a high school dropout with a pencil-sharp mind. He's quick-witted, articulate, down to earth, and exceedingly sentimental.

His home - a gilded Mediterranean castle brimming with art objects from the world over- is a monument to temporal success. Yet, he likes nothing better than a casual evening with Rose Marie, his wife of 56 years, his three grown children, and his grandchildren.

"With them, it's blue jeans and beer," he says. "The other night Phil [son-in-law Phil Donahue] and Marlo [daughter] and I drank a few beers and then stayed up until three singing Irish folk songs."

Thomas usually visits the Memphis medical center several times a year to catch up on scientific advances and to talk with researchers, patients and their parents. It's all part of the promise he made to St. Jude.

"I promised him a shrine, not a side altar," Thomas says, pausing only long enough to light his cigar before launching into another sermon. "The point is to be the best at whatever you are. You can be part of the world. Buy a brick - even if it's $5 or $10 - so you can drive past and say, ‘I have a piece of that building, no matter how small. I am involved.'"

When he first made his commitment to St. Jude, Thomas had thought of opening an emergency center for low-income children. But after seeking guidance from his close friend, Cardinal Samuel Stritch of Chicago, he instead chose to build a research hospital to focus on children' s cancer. Thomas thinks the cardinal leaned toward Memphis because his career as a priest began there.

Looking back on St. Jude's dedication ceremony 25 years ago, Thomas says he never dreamed how successful the shrine would become. And he could never imagine the lessons he'd learn from the children at St. Jude.

"Courage. That's what you learn from children with cancer," Thomas states flatly. "You learn strength and stamina when you are with kids who are battling for life. You learn peace.

"Some of the older kids know they're going to die. They console their parents. There are no hysterics, no dramatics. I call them 'the Holy Innocent.'"

As an entertainer for U.S. troops in Europe during World War II, Thomas saw the ravages of war first hand. Some of his most haunting memories are of children in pain. "We'd see the same kids we'd seen two days earlier. Now, the child's legs and arms would be gone. I entertained one who had a huge hole in his head. "

Most people don't immediately lump entertainers with doctors and nurses in the so-called "helping professions." But Thomas says the work of show business professionals is very much like that done by the ministry.

"After the Red Cross, then comes the entertainer, the clown - the second line of defense," he continues. "Entertainers are there to help people forget their troubles. It's a calling like the ministry. The audience needs you. That's why I've always felt show business was something I had to do since I was II years old and first sold soda pop in a burlesque theater.

"When I am with patients at St. Jude, I hold their hands. We talk. Sometimes I tell them they are doing well. And, no, I'm not immune to suffering. I've done my crying in the halls.

"But what you have to do is give them hope. You give them something they can cling to. You just don't preach despair. Many patients don't know how sick they are. And that's good."

Asked if he'd want to be told if he had terminal cancer, Thomas's response is swift and sure.

"Lie to me!" he booms. "I don't want to know if I'm going to die. It's like my picture of heaven. I see it in beautiful colors and everything. It's not just some theory. I prefer to believe it really is beautiful. I prefer hope to despair."

Thomas says he has no plans to retire from show business or philanthropy. He's confident that when he dies, money will continue to come in to St. Jude.

Last year, his family stood by as President Reagan presented him with a Congressional Medal of Honor in recognition of his humanitarian efforts and outstanding work as an American.

Even though he has received more awards than many heads of state - including membership on the National Advisory Cancer Council of the National Institutes of Health and titles like "Man of the Year" and "Personality of the Century" - Thomas says getting a gold medal at the White House was the most thrilling, and terrifying, of all.

"When they put that thing around my neck, I felt like a drowning man," he says. "I was overwhelmed. I thought, ‘Holy Toledo! Here I am, Mary Jacobs' kid!'"

With eyes glistening, Thomas gazes out the window as if to adjust his mind to the scope of that state occasion. No one, he says, can afford to take bows or to become overly impressed with themselves: "You do the best you can and leave the rest in the hands of the divine director. You can't stop to analyze life. You've got to leave it alone, let it happen."

The sermon is almost over. The conductor signals the finale with a chomp on his cigar. The loquacious preacher becomes the veteran comic: "What's important is faith in your fellow man before faith in God. You can't see Him, except when the smog lifts. Then you can see God - and Catalina."

On that note, a foxy grin flashes over the familiar, fatherly face. As he excuses himself for a late-afternoon appointment downtown, he's as vibrant as a man half his age.

Once out of the study, his presence lingers. His face beams from the dozens of photographs and awards that line the walls of the study.

Yet, one item on the cluttered desk seems to portray its owner more than the others. It's as much a tribute to Thomas' old friend, Harry Truman, as it is a personal statement about the man who carved a great, big dream from a small, simple promise.

It reads: The Buck Stops Here.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 1987.