Arab American Roots of St. Jude's: How a Promise Made In The Collection Plate Led to Success
By: Holly Johnson/Arab America Contributing Writer Settled among the towering poplar trees, charismatic with dazzling shades of green hues dancing off the balmy, gritty river banks of the mighty Mississippi, is a building made of mere brick and mortar that performs magic. No, not the kind that produces fuzzy-eared bunnies from a black silk hat, or inch after inch of tissue from the previously empty palm of a slyly grinning amateur magician (nothing against magicians, we think they’re pretty cool). You see, this building performs life-changing, uplifting, fills-your-heart-with-feelings-of-joy-and-warmth kind of magic. We’re talking about St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
Although we’ve all heard the miracles that St. Jude’s performs, what many of us are not aware of is the hospital’s inextricable ties to the Arab American community. In a story mired with mysticism, faith, and the intense spirit of giving, we turn the clocks back more than 70 years to begin.
How it all Began …
The year is 1949, and the world is a mere four years past the deadliest international war in history that took the lives of an estimated 56.4 million. Harry Truman is president, the North Atlantic Treaty has been established, and the Volkswagen Beetle has hit the civilian market for the first time. Meanwhile, on the streets of Detroit, a starving entertainer with a baby on the way is frantic with worry as to how he will provide for his growing family.
Born Amos Muzyad Yaqoob Kairouz on 6 January 1912, the Deerfield, Michigan native was the middle child of 10 born to Maronite Lebanese Christians from Lebanon. Raised in Toledo, Ohio, Kairouz began performing on radio in 1932, assuming his anglicized name, Amos Jacobs Kairouz. Although many have incorrectly assumed that his professional name change stemmed from a desire to appear “more Americanized,” Kairouz performed under the name Danny Thomas in the early 1940s so that he could keep the fact that he was performing in clubs a secret from his family.
In 1949, almost twenty years after his first performance, Thomas was a struggling young comic who could barely scrape up enough money to feed him and his growing family. Down to his last $7, Thomas, running low on enthusiasm, visited a Detroit church for mass and was so moved by the service that he left every penny he had in the collection plate. Calling to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes, Thomas prayed for a way to pay for the looming hospital bills that the impending arrival of his new little bundle of joy would bring.
Whether or not Thomas believed that his desperate yet genuine attempt at prayer would work is unknown. The very next day, however, Thomas landed a job in Chicago, which not only provided much-needed funds for nourishment, but opportunity as well.
Less than two years later, Thomas received the starring role in the popular sitcom, “Make Room for Daddy” (known later as The Danny Thomas Show), which ran for 11 years on ABC and CBS, making Thomas a household name.
Remembering the promise he had made that fateful Sunday, Thomas began searching for ways to honor the spirit of charity that had been so merciful to him. While in Chicago, he approached a cardinal, explaining what inspired his desire to invoke change. Initially seeking the cardinal’s permission to build a statue of St. Jude Thaddeus, the cardinal instead suggested that Thomas direct his efforts towards doing something more meaningful, such as opening a clinic to help treat sick children.
The cardinal, originally from Memphis, Tennessee, suggested the location to Thomas because of how poor the city was, stricken with a lack of basic resources. Eventually traveling to Memphis himself, Thomas witnessed the city’s struggles first-hand, and from that moment on was fervently committed to ensuring that no child died in the “dawn of life”.
A Dream turns into Reality
Regularly meeting with community leaders and healthcare professionals, Thomas and his wife began traveling the United States, hosting galas, concerts (with the help of talented Arab American singers such as Naim Karacand), and appearances to raise funds for his philanthropic project.
Creating the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) in 1957 to serve as an umbrella for his fundraising efforts, ALSAC remains the fundraising vehicle of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Releasing a statement, Danny maintained that the creation of the association was an opportunity for Americans of Syrian-Lebanese descent — like himself — “to join together for the first time and honor their parents who had come to the United States seeking a brighter future for themselves and their children.”
With help from loved ones and celebrities (including famous Memphian Elvis Presley), while also drawing on the Arab tradition of giving oneself to worthy causes, Thomas opened the doors to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, located on Danny Thomas Place in downtown Memphis, Tennessee in 1964.
An Innovate Legacy
The first of its kind, St. Jude’s treats an estimated 8,500 patients a year, providing exemplary healthcare for children without requiring payment. A leading innovator in scientific research, St. Jude’s is one of the largest pediatric cancer hospitals in the world.
With daily operation costs of upwards to 1.8million, St. Jude’s continues to rely on the spirit of giving that spurred its initial creation. Raising more than $800 million annually for the hospital, ALSAC oversees more than 34,000 fundraising efforts annually. With seventy percent of operating costs originating from donations, thirty percent stems from government grants.
In accordance with bylaws designated by Thomas himself, ALSAC requires that 70% of the board members be of Arab descent, while 30% must be comprised of individuals from divergent backgrounds in an effort to remain grounded in diversity.
ALSAC has remained loyal to its Arab roots, opening satellite locations in Beirut in 2002, and entering a partnership with the King Hussein Cancer Center in Amman, Jordan.
Before each board meeting, a prayer is recited in the corporate offices of ALSAC, reaffirming the hospital’s promise that it treats children of all backgrounds, relying on God’s help to find guidance.
To Memphians, Thomas is a hero. Yet, to the parents of patients who have been cured at St. Jude’s, he is a saint whose legacy shall be remembered forevermore.
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