Marlo Thomas: "That Girl" at St. Jude
By Idelle Davidson

Perhaps best known for her starring role in the late 1960s as Ann Marie on the TV cornedy, That Girl, Marlo Thomas doesn’t look all that different today. She’s still a wide-eyed beauty but gone is the naive perkiness that characterized her in those early days. Replacing it is a warmth and serenity that may have more to do with her work for St. Jude than anything else.

Marlo was just a child when her father, Danny Thomas, came up with the idea to build a hospital for catastrophically ill children. “His dream absolutely energized our home,” recalls Marlo. “It was something that we heard about all the time.” She still remembers watching her dad take out a piece of cardboard from a starched shirt and spend hours sketching his idea of what St. Jude should look like. Danny was adamant about placing the hospital somewhere in the South.

“I remember him reading the paper and talking to us about a small boy who had died in the South,” says Marlo. “No hospital—not even an emergency room—would take him because he was black. It very much upset him. My father had a great sense of justice and equality.”

Those feelings, she believes, stemmed from her father’s own childhood in Toledo, Ohio. He was one of ten children from an impoverished family. His parents, immigrants from the Lebanese village of Becheri, subsisted on what was then called “relief “—what we call welfare today. One of his siblings lost an eye while playing with a rubber band and another brother nearly died from a rat bite. “He understood what it meant to be poor and not have real help, real doctors,” says Marlo.

Yet they were showered with kindness from others. “There was a Jewish woman who had a bakery and she used to give them the bagels that didn’t get sold that day,” says Marlo. “His neighborhood was a melting pot of immigrants: Asians, blacks, Italians, Poles, and Jews. There were many arms of different colors that embraced my father’s family.”

And so St. Jude was her father’s way of giving back. “He wanted to thank America in the name of his parents and in the name of the Lebanese and Syrian people,” says Marlo. Even years later, Danny would visit often, cherishing his friendships with patients and their families. In 1985, President Reagan presented Danny with the Congressional Medal of Honor for founding St. Jude.

The image that most stands out for Marlo is her father rising from the dinner table to take phone calls, then returning to announce, with heartbreak, that a child hadn’t survived. “And I thought, who are these people who my father is so involved with? How did that happen that he has practically this whole other family life—the St. Jude family? Now that he’s gone, I understand it,” says Marlo.

Since Danny’s death from heart failure in 1991, Marlo and her younger siblings have become almost fulltime spokespersons for St. Jude. “My sister and my brother and I talked about it, called an ‘emergency board meeting’ and said we wanted to fulfill our father’s dream,” she says.

Marlo says she spends part of every day on some aspect of St. Jude business. She serves as National Outreach Director, devoting long hours to fundraising events and dinners on behalf of the hospital. Her husband, former talk show host Phil Donahue, and her brother, Hollywood producer Tony Thomas, often accompany her and make speeches, or host golf tournaments as well as other events. Her sister, singer-songwriter Terre Thomas, is a member of the St. Jude National Board of Directors. Marlo’s mother, Rose Marie Thomas, is also an officer of the Board.

Marlo still manages to squeeze in an impressive show business career. Yet she always returns to St. Jude. “Sick children and their frightened and worried parents just take a piece of your heart,” says Marlo, who makes sure she walks through the hospital, learning patients’ names and establishing rapport on each visit. “Now I’m very much in touch with these children and their families.”


Marlo speaks of those who have especially moved her. She’ll never forget the 6-year-old boy who died in her arms. Marlo was at the hospital when his mother came looking for her. She wanted Marlo to say a final goodbye to her son who had waged an unsuccessful battle with leukemia. It was quiet and dark as she entered the child’s room. The father and grandparents were sitting, unmoving.

“They were just destroyed,” recalls Marlo. The machines were turned off and all the tubes had been removed from his body. He looked unconscious. Marlo went over and cradled him. “I told him that I loved him and how proud I was of him that he had put up such a tremendous fight,” says Marlo. “I told him that I wanted him to say hello to my daddy when he got to heaven. And I had his little hand in mine and I said to him, ‘Do you know how much I love you?” She asked him to squeeze her hand if he could hear her. And as she waited, she felt the barest tap.

“It really got to me, it still does,” says Marlo, choking up with the memory. “Somewhere he could hear me. And I said, ‘Oh thank you. I can feel it. I love you.’ It was hard, it was very hard.”

There are the success stories of children thriving as well. Marlo is particularly close to the Salinas family, which has endured more than their share of tragedy. Gabriela Salinas was 7 years old when she felt a pain in her back while skating near her home in Tarija, Bolivia. She could not walk or stand. Although doctors told her parents, Jacqueline and Omar, that their daughter simply had a pinched nerve, they panicked.

Omar’s sister, who lived in New York, encouraged them to bring Gabriela to New York City. It was at a medical center there that physicians diagnosed Gabriela with Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancerous tumor of the spine. They gave the girl just 2 weeks to live. But the staff at the hospital refused to treat her because the family had no insurance and could not pay the $250,000 deposit.

A journalist from the New York Daily News reported the story. When Marlo, who lives in New York, read the article, she called the hospital and spoke with a woman in their public relations department. “I said to her, ‘Why didn’t you just go on the Internet and find out who takes care of kids that can’t pay? I’m sure you would have found us. Why just let the kid out the back alley into a cab?’ That’s actually what happened.”

After St. Jude doctors confirmed that Gabriela could be admitted to one of their research protocols, Marlo took the next step. She arranged for The American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), the fundraising arm of St. Jude Hospital, to pay for the Salinas’ flight to Memphis. An ambulance picked up the family at the Memphis airport and took them to St. Jude.

Now 11 years old, Gabriela is very much alive and well. She is an active and charming pre-teen, and cancer-free. Yet the Salinas family’s hardships did not end with Gabriela’s gift of life. Thirteen months after their arrival at St. Jude, the entire family was involved in a terrible car accident. Gabriela’s father and 3-year-old sister, Valentina were killed. Her mother, who was pregnant, was paralyzed from the waist down. Gabriela and her two brothers, one of whom is her twin, survived with cuts and bruises.

“Jacqueline said to me, ‘If I go hack to Bolivia in a wheelchair, and with all these children, I will be a woman who sells pencils on the street,’” says Marlo. So now she is helping Jacqueline obtain citizenship through a private relief bill introduced in Congress. Eventually, ALSAC will help Jacqueline find a job.

Fortunately, Jacqueline’s baby—a boy—was born healthy. To thank Marlo and St. Jude, she named him Danny Thomas Salinas. “She called and asked for my permission,” says Marlo. “I said I would be honored. What a thrill.”

Marlo still shakes her head when she thinks of the New York hospital turning Gabriela away. She admits that many hospitals can’t afford to treat people for free. “What’s the first thing that happens when you get to a hospital?” says Marlo. “You could have blood flowing down your head and they want your insurance card. That doesn’t happen at St. Jude. The first thing they say is, ‘Let’s get you to the examining room,” she says.

“It was my father’s dream that no family should be turned away for their inability to pay,” says Marlo. “That’s the miracle of the place.”

2001 InTouch