At St. Jude, no cause is lost
After his victory at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, Harrison Frazar received a hefty check for more than $1 million before thousands in an admiring gallery.
But in 30 to 60 days, long after the tournament excitement has subsided, another check will be cashed with hardly a soul taking note. The lack of fanfare, however, won’t diminish its significance.
Because what this check pays for is profound: Bone-marrow transplants. Radiation treatment. Even three-year chemotherapy protocols that cost more than $500,000 each.
Like most PGA Tour events, the St. Jude Classic operates as a nonprofit entity with proceeds funneled toward charities. But unlike many that donate their funds to a variety of worthy organizations, the Memphis, Tenn., stop gives all of its money to one local beneficiary: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which treats patients with catastrophic illnesses regardless of their families’ financial means.
It’s an act of generosity that has stretched 41 years, yielding contributions that stand in excess of $24 million.
But neither touting the sizable sum nor hearing the Tour promote its philanthropy – with slogans such as “Together, Anything’s Possible” – even begins to define the pairing of tournament and hospital.
They represent far more than a donor simply cutting a check to a compelling cause. They illustrate how relationships between tournaments and charities often evolve – so intertwined that they become an extension of each other, no longer a partnership but a singular reason for being.
“St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital provides hope,” said Richard Shadyac Jr., chief executive officer of the medical center’s fundraising arm.
Fulfilling that mission drives all involved, and their work is never-ending. The hospital treats an average of 5,700 patients annually. It has cared for children from every state as well as from abroad. Its mandate is to turn away no one.
“We take insurance at St. Jude, but we are a research hospital, so many of our protocols are deemed experimental and they may not be covered,” Shadyac said. “We don’t even charge the families for the deductibles; it’s taken care of by us.”
Such compassion comes with an exorbitant price. It costs nearly $600 million per year – that’s $1.6 million per day – to operate the hospital, and 71 percent of that money comes from donations.
The opportunity to rally support for the cause is what first brought together the St. Jude Classic and hospital founder Danny Thomas, the late Hollywood legend. Known for his role in the sitcom classic, “Make Room for Daddy,” Thomas used his celebrity in the early 1960s to establish the hospital in what was then still the segregated South. Hearing news about a black youth who was injured in a car accident and died after being rejected for care at three hospitals crystallized Thomas’ vision.
In 1970, the tournament designated the hospital as its charity and renamed it the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic. The actor gained another coveted stage.
“You can’t imagine how important it was,” said Tony Thomas, who continues his father’s work as a St. Jude board member. “Dad would go on ‘The Tonight Show’ and talk about the hospital, and the only other place where he could do that was at the tournament.”
True to form as an entertainer, Danny Thomas engaged Tour players, volunteers and fans alike, elevating his namesake event into a gathering of civic pride. Shared experiences – including witnessing Al Geiberger’s historic 59 in 1977, and equally remarkable, President Gerald Ford’s ace during that year’s pro-am – galvanized them even more.
The tournament’s legacy continues to win St. Jude new recruits. Since 2007, Charles Underwood, 66, a retired construction manager, has served as a tournament volunteer, and he does it for one reason.
“I can’t even tell you the feeling, the compassion of reaching out and giving back,” he said.
Even Danny Thomas could not have envisioned the triumphs. In large part because of the work done at St. Jude, the survival rate for the most common form of childhood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, has soared to 94 percent from 4 percent in 1962, when the hospital opened.
For Kevin Washburn, such statistics translate into the only thing that matters: The cancer that attacked his son Ethan, now 10, is in remission. The father speaks on behalf of many parents who have had incalculable worries eased: “If you’re the main breadwinner in the family, you think, ‘How am I going to be able to be there for my child and work enough to be able to afford all this stuff and not lose everything?’ ”
Without St. Jude, he added, “We would have been lost.”