Santa Joe hits century mark

Photo by Barry Levine

Photo by Barry Levine

Joe Farris is a remarkable person, and he has achieved a remarkable feat.

Tomorrow, for the 100th time, the man who embodies the spirit of Christmas as much as — or more than — any man ever has will bring gifts to the young patients of St. Jude Children’s Research Center in Memphis, Tenn.

One hundred trips.

Remarkable indeed.

Few people have ever been as dedicated to a cause. Few people have ever persevered so long. Few people have brought so much joy to so many youngsters so in need of it.

Twice a year for a half-century, Farris has loaded up his van with gifts, contributions and special helpers and embarked on the 500-plus-mile trip to Memphis. Once he gets there, he transforms into Santa Claus, complete with the red suit and white whiskers, giving the kids who are in the fights of their young lives an escape ... and a reason to smile.

That’s more than a million miles traveled for the sole purpose of raising spirit and hope in children.

If you talk to Farris about what has been his life’s mission, you will see that the emotion runs deep. Often with teary eyes, he will tell how hopeless the future was for a child stricken with the most common form of leukemia when he began making his trips in the 1960s. When St. Jude opened in 1962 — Farris had been helping raise money for the facility for five years already when the doors opened — the basic treatment was a couple of blood transfusions.

Now, the cure rate for acute leukemia is 94 percent. The research facility has made similar tremendous inroads in the treatment of other childhood cancers as well. The overall cure rate for all childhood cancers has quadrupled from around 20 percent in the 1960s to 80 percent today.

St. Jude employs 3,400 people and has an annual budget of more than $400 million. The facility serves an average of 5,700 patients a year, mostly on an outpatient basis. It has 78 inpatient beds and treats more than 230 patients per day.

And the hospital and research center founded by Danny Thomas, the late entertainer, doesn’t turn away a sick child over an inability to pay. Much of that is due to the generous donations and contributions the facility has received over the years and the diligent fundraising work performed by folks like Farris, who has helped raised more than $2 million for St. Jude over the past 54 years.

“It was in 1962 (the medical center opened on Feb. 4 that year) when Danny Thomas told me to start doing something besides raising money,” Farris said in a previous interview with The Albany Herald. “I tell you, that Danny Thomas was a real inspiration to everybody.”

Farris, who Thomas affectionately called “little brother,” never lost that inspiration. He spends the six months between his trips drumming up financial support for the cause he has championed and collecting gifts for the patients.

In a world where people too often let you down, Joe Farris, “the real Santa Claus,” has always managed to find a way to pick us up. To paraphrase the immortal Charles Dickens, Farris has long known how to keep Christmas well in his heart and actions, if any man alive has possessed the knowledge. Indeed, in knowing Joe Farris, God has blessed us, every one.