Tony Thomas propels his father’s vision to new heights.
“My father’s dream of building St. Jude has been the core of my life,” says Thomas from his home in California. “There were not too many dining-table conversations that didn’t involve St. Jude at one point or another. It was a part of my life from my earliest memories.”
The decision to locate the hospital in Memphis may have surprised some, but it was a natural fit as Thomas remembers. “Dad wanted to build it in the South,” says Thomas. “He wanted to make sure those with the most need would get the advantage of having St. Jude nearby. He carried around an article in his wallet about a young black child who was hit by a car driven by a white man. The man picked the boy up and put him in his back seat, then drove to three different hospitals. By the time he reached a hospital that would take the little boy, he had died. At that point, my dad was determined to locate the hospital in the South, and that no child would be turned away because of their race, religion, or ability to pay. He didn’t want families to have to pay; they had enough to worry about.”
The dream of such a hospital is one thing. Turning the dream into bricks, mortar, doctors, scientists, and medicine was a challenge of epic scale. “In hindsight, it amazes me that Dad and the group he got to follow his dream could raise money on an idea, and a drawing,” says Thomas. “But when my father spoke, we used to say someone should be in the room, chiseling it down on marble. He spoke with a lot of force and conviction. I was young, so I didn’t realize the magnitude of what he was going for, but there was never a doubt in my mind that this would be accomplished.”
St. Jude today makes a strong presence in a thriving, growing downtown Memphis. It can be easy to forget that the hospital was in the same location during the dreadfully bleak decade after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. Thomas emphasizes that the location was and remains a point of pride. “My first memories of Memphis were staying in the Holiday Inn on the river,” reflects Thomas. “I remember sitting on a balcony, staring at the Mississippi River forever, thinking of Mark Twain, and imagining what went up and down that river. I was mesmerized by it.
Born and raised in Hollywood, Thomas has found St. Jude to be a link between the land of movie stars and the birthplace of the blues. “Show business was a strong force in the building of St. Jude,” he says. “My dad used every friend he had to raise money for St. Jude. Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, George Burns, Dinah Shore, Sammy Davis Jr. . . . a lot of star power. They’d go out to various cities and put on benefits to raise money and spread the word. They all answered the call.”
Now 63, Thomas has recruited a new generation of stars to support the St. Jude mission, largely through his “Thanks and Giving” campaign. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, celebrities and corporate partners ask holiday shoppers to consider St. Jude in their outreach. Thomas has produced national TV commercials featuring the likes of Robin Williams and Morgan Freeman. Since the program’s inception in 2004, more than $240 million has been raised.
“Involvement with ALSAC is part of my DNA,” says Thomas. “I would go with my dad to certain events, but I didn’t get involved strongly — aside from events in California — until dad passed away [in 1991]. It was time to step up. It’s taken [sisters] Marlo, Terre, and myself to accomplish what he did by himself.”
Thomas remains astonished at the vigor his father brought to the St. Jude cause, and the unbound drive with which he delivered the message. “He asked his fans to help,” says Thomas. “He went on Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow. Murrow would visit celebrities’ homes and you met the family. We answered questions that Mr. Murrow asked, but at one point, the cameras followed my father into another room, and he lifted a drawing of the original St. Jude building, long before it was built.
“And he asked people to send in money. ‘If you were ever a fan of mine,’ he said, ‘if you ever enjoyed anything I did, I ask you to please help me get this hospital built.’ I find that to be audacious, and incredibly brave. Dad called himself a proud beggar.”
Thomas likes to emphasize that, while corporate giving to St. Jude has grown significantly over a half-century, the vast majority of donations — fully 75 percent — still come from individuals. They may have been fans of Danny Thomas but became multigenerational fans of St. Jude. “That all started with my father’s grassroots movement,” says Thomas, “when he went from town to town like he was running for office.”
There are occasions, if rare, when Thomas encounters people unfamiliar with the St. Jude mission. “Part of the goal in creating the ‘Thanks and Giving’ campaign was to increase awareness,” says Thomas, “and it’s worked. The money’s important, but so is creating the awareness that St. Jude is the crown jewel of pediatric cancer research. There are still people who are unaware, but much, much less than there used to be.”
Two decades after Danny Thomas’ death, how does his son see the impact St. Jude has made on the world? “I honestly believe it’s the magnitude that my father dreamed,” says Thomas. “It’s likely beyond the magnitude he thought he could achieve. He would be pretty amazed.”