Entertainer, Philanthropist, Visionary, Lebanese-American
Founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
It’s been over 50 years since Danny Thomas’ dream came true of establishing St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital based on his promise to St. Jude and his belief that “no child should die in the dawn of life”. Danny Thomas’ early struggles were typical of immigrants in the early 1900’s. His story is one of strong faith and perseverance.
Danny Thomas was one of nine children born to immigrant parents. He was born on January 6, 1912 in Deerfield, Michigan. He grew up in Toledo, Ohio, listening to stories from his mother, his Uncle Tony, and the elderly baker, Mrs. Feldman, whose store Thomas’ family lived over. Those stories from his mother and others ignited a love of story-telling in young Danny and would eventually lead to his interest in the entertainment business. Danny worked hard as a young boy helping to support the family by selling newspapers and working various other odd jobs, such as a candy maker in a burlesque theatre—a job that he held for seven years.
Danny saved enough money to buy a couple of suits and a few pairs of shoes so that he could go to Detroit to look for a job in show business. He landed a job as a singer on the radio show “The Happy Hour Club”. It was here that he met his future wife, an Italian girl named Rose Marie Mantell, who was also on the show.
When his Rose Marie was pregnant with their first child, Marlo (Margaret), Danny was still a struggling actor. He was worried about paying all the bills and he was torn between spending more time at home with the family by getting a 9-5 job, versus continuing his search for his big “breakthrough” in the entertainment business.
Along with fostering his story-telling abilities, Thomas’ mother also taught him to have faith. When Danny’s younger brother was bitten by a rat and doctors were having a hard time warding off infection, Danny’s mother prayed and vowed to God that if he would spare her youngest son, she would walk door to door for one year begging for money to give to the poor. Danny’s brother recovered and Danny’s mother made good on her promise.
Inspired by his mother’s vow many years prior, Danny decided to visit a church in Detroit to pray for answers as to what he should do to support his family.
Danny knelt before a statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, and begged for a sign of what he should do. That day, Danny promised that he would erect a shrine to St. Jude if the saint would show him his direction in life as he placed his last $7 in the collection box. The next day, he was offered a small role that would pay 10 times the amount he had given to the church.
Two years later, he had achieved moderate success in Detroit, but was still struggling to find his way. He again, turned to St. Jude. Danny asked the saint to “help me find my way in life, and I will build you a shrine”.
Less than a year later, Danny moved his family to Chicago where he worked as an entertainer. Once again, he turned to St. Jude and repeated his promise to build a shrine to the saint if he would show him the way.
In the years that followed, Danny went on to become one of the most loved entertainers of his time. He is probably best known for his role in the television series, “Make Room for Daddy”, which was based on his own life as a father. This show went on to win numerous emmy awards.
In the early 1950’s, Danny began discussing with friends his promise to St. Jude. Gradually, the idea of a children’s hospital began to take shape. In 1955, Danny Thomas and a group of businessmen in Memphis, TN, came up with the idea of not only creating a children’s treatment facility, but a research center to help treat childhood cancers throughout the world.
Danny started raising money for his vision of St. Jude in the 1950’s. Danny, accompanied by his wife Rose Marie, began to crisscross the United States by car, sharing their dream and raising money for St. Jude. He worked at a fervent pace, often visiting a new city each day.
Danny, being of Lebanese descent, turned to his fellow Americans of Arabic-speaking heritage because he believed deeply that they should, as a group, be thankful to the United States for the freedom and opportunity that they were given and that it would be a noble way of honoring their immigrant forefathers. Danny was able to generate enthusiasm in Americans of Lebanese and Syrian decent, including the members of the Southern Federation of Syrian Lebanese American Clubs, the Midwest Federation of American Syrian Lebanese Clubs, and the Eastern Federation of Syrian Lebanese American Clubs.
In fact, Michael Tamer, Past President of the Midwest Federation, became Thomas’ right hand man and would later become ALSAC’s first National Executive Director.
In 1957, 100 representatives of the Arab-American community met in Chicago to form ALSAC- the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities. The sole purpose of ALSAC was to raise funds to support St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Since then, ALSAC, with its headquarters in Memphis, and its regional offices throughout the United States, has continued its fundraising efforts, making ALSAC the nation’s second largest health care charity. It is supported by more than 1 million volunteers throughout the United States.
Luckily, Danny was able to live to see his hospital reach such epic proportions. Danny once said, “I believe show business has only been a vehicle to fulfill my destiny — to establish St. Jude. Founding the hospital is the highlight of my life. Thousands of children are alive today who otherwise would be dead.”
Danny Thomas suffered a heart attack and died on February 6, 1991, just two days after celebrating the hospital’s 29th Anniversary in Memphis. He was laid to rest in a family crypt at the Danny Thomas/ALSAC pavilion on the hospital grounds. His wife, Rose Marie, passed away in 2000 and lies beside her beloved husband in the Memorial garden. Danny’s three children, Marlo, Terre, and Tony, continue to carry on the works of their father, ensuring that their father’s dream lives on and that St. Jude continues to be honored.