But what an unlikely star. First, there was his name – nearly unpronounceable to his American pals. So, he Americanized it to “Danny Thomas” by adopting one name from each of his brothers. Then there was his nose, the caricature feature that cartoonists loved to mock.
Though urged by studio execs to “get rid of the schnoz,” he declined and decided to take his chances. He went on to become a renowned nightclub entertainer and a TV star. The series Make Room for Daddy and then The Danny Thomas Show brightened two decades, as he made us laugh at ourselves. And yet relatively early in his career, Danny provided his most lasting legacy, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. That was hugely heroic.
In the 1950s, Thomas, though famous, was not rolling in dough. He was raising a young family of his own, but his philanthropy sprang from two sources: his humility and his heart. He never considered his success in show biz as truly his own. He knew his desired path was a long shot, and when it looked like he might have to leave show business to get a steady job, Thomas, a devout Catholic, prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. “If you allow me success in this life path, I will build you a shrine,” he promised. And then “what about a hospital to save kids, whose future is threatened in the very dawn of life?”
St. Jude came through for Danny and Danny came through for St. Jude. The research hospital in Memphis, TN broke ground in 1962, when Thomas himself could not afford to endow it. Instead, in 1957 he mobilized the Lebanese and Syrian immigrant community that he grew up with to work on its behalf. ALSAC, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, came into being as a way of expressing gratitude to a land that had given them such opportunity. But Thomas didn’t stop there. He enlisted every funny man he knew (and he knew them all: Milton Berle, George Burns, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, and Sammy Davis Jr.) to host benefits for the new project. Soon a sprawling campus of medical energy sprang from the ground. Scared young children and their parents would arrive to receive new treatment and new hope.
Today St. Jude’s thrives and its mission is simple: to find cures for childhood diseases (mostly cancer) and save children. They’ve been spectacularly successful, recognized internationally as a major center of research and treatment. The overall childhood cancer survival rate in 1962 was 20%. Thanks to research at St. Jude's and elsewhere, today’s survival rate is over 80%. St. Jude’s itself has a 94% survival rate, which is up from 4% in 1962. Not only do physicians and staff attend to the young patients, but family travel, stay, and meals are all paid for at St. Jude’s. No family receives a bill. “Because all a family should worry about,” at this time they tell us “is helping their child live.”
Thomas wanted to make people laugh, lighten the heavy burden of life with a funny bit that left people howling and clamoring for more. “Did you kill ‘em?” is the classic question to a comedian. “I murdered 'em!” comes the reply from a successful comic. But deathly imagery is only a way of signaling momentary relief from the burden of life. Make Room for Danny! Ultimately, this Hollywood star used his gifts and fame not for himself, but to give children hope. His work ensured that the young would enjoy the burden and adventure of life, and that their laughter would live on. Seems to me that’s heroic, wise, and exemplary.
Mary Beth Klee
The Core Virtues Foundation is unaffiliated with St. Jude’s Research Hospital, but congratulates Marlo Thomas on continuing her father’s work and urges generous readers to read about their efforts at https://www.stjude.org/.
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