Danny Thomas (born Amos Alphonsus Muzyad Yaqoob), Jan. 6, 1912-Feb. 6, 1991.

Success has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It’s what you do for others.

—Danny Thomas

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Many Americans today have probably never heard of Danny Thomas, as he belonged definitively to the twilight of the Golden Age of Cinema (starring in the 1952 remake of The Jazz Singer) and the dawn of the Golden Era of Television (starring in, what else, The Danny Thomas Show and producing such shows as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Mod Squad). And before all that, he was a stand-up comic touring the Midwest nightclub circuit under an anglicized form of his given name, Amos Jacobs.

In any event, it is not for Danny’s entertainment talent that we honor him today. Of all his long work in the studios, only a couple of his many shows are still shown frequently. But though most do not know him by name, nearly everyone knows him through his greatest legacy: The St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

At an early moment in his career, when the nightclub circuit was looking particularly grim (he was languishing in Detroit, no less), Danny knelt down in prayer and asked St. Jude Thaddeus (patron of hopless causes) to “show me my way in life.” Soon Danny found himself in Chicago and his career finally moving. When he next went to St. Jude in prayer at another turning point, he pledged to build a shrine if he ever had the means to do so.

His career took off, and Danny found himself wondering just how to fulfill his vow. Working with a group of businessmen in Memphis, he hit upon the idea to build a research hospital dedicated to curing the most catastrophic diseases afflicting children. A key point here: Danny Thomas didn’t just found a hospital—which after all can only treat the children that come through its doors—he founded a research institute dedicated to researching, applying, and publicizing cures for free.

And Danny did more than just found the place, he returned to the community of his birth, Lebanese Americans, to secure ongoing funding. From his efforts, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) was founded—with the sole purpose of supporting St. Jude. Today, ALSAC—still exclusively dedicated to St. Jude—is America’s third-largest health-care charity. Thus, the efforts of Danny Thomas and the Arab-American community produced a fundraising powerhouse that today transcends ethnicity, geography, and ideology to reach across America.

With an initial focus on pediatric cancer, St. Jude has helped increase the cure rate of acute lymphocytic leukemia from 4% to 80%, seen its budget grow from $1 million per year to $235 million, and branched out to study HIV-AIDS (devastating the children of Africa) and numerous cancers. Today it engages in cutting edge gene and stem cell therapies and is a highly rated scientific institution.

Leaving aside the 4900 patients seen each year, St. Jude has saved the lives of thousands upon thousands of children around the world through its contributions to basic and clinical research. Protocols developed at St. Jude have helped raise the survival rates for childhood cancers from under 20% to around 70%, with several key cancers having survival rates 90% or higher. And now it sets its sights on the diseases and therapies of the 21st Century. In the best American fashion it does not simply treat the symptoms of the ills it fights, it seeks to eliminate the root causes.

All from the vow of a stand-up comic, with help from a few Memphis businessmen and the unstinting assistance of the Arab-American community. Danny Thomas represents precisely what is right about America: he had opportunity, seized it, succeeded, and then stopped to consider how he could use his success to improve the world.

Of course, as with our other Great Americans Walt Disney and George Marshall, there are detractors. Some point to the sheer impossibility of curing childhood diseases and the tendency of charities to metastasize over time. To these folks the size and scope of St. Jude aren’t strengths but weaknesses—weaknesses that a group of smaller more focused institutions wouldn’t have. Others point out that as nasty as the diseases St. Jude fights are, they’re nothing compared to the childhood deaths from starvation, war, and exploitation. Wouldn’t all those millions be better spent fighting these more lethal, but far less scientifically “sexy” killers? Doesn’t St. Jude commit the classic American blunder of the Big Plan when less ambitious, more targeted efforts would work better?

There’s a point to all the carping, to be sure, but it still misses the point. Here, as always, the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good. Trying too hard to get the perfect solution is a great recipe for doing nothing. While others carp, hopeless cases still find hope at the place Danny built.

Still, I don’t think Danny would mind if those critics of his got busy building their competing visions. They might give ALSAC a run for the money, but I can’t help but think that Danny would just look down and urge them on.

After all, there’s still more than enough childhood misery to go around, sadly.

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