Joe Farris, the “real” Santa, center, and his helpers prepare to make his 100th trip to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Got help from Kay Ragan, bottom left; Linda Ealum, bottom right; Center row left to right: Josh Hutto, Winnie Hutto, Joe Farris, Traci Bland, Rand Merchant; Top: Austin Davis. Not pictured: Mary Powell.
ALBANY — He’s not so quick as the twinkle in your eye, but after 100 toy deliveries, and more that $3 million toward saving children’s lives, this south Georgia Santa has shown he can do the job.
Twice each year, since 1962, Santa, or Joe Farris, as he’s known in his home town of Douglas, has gathered his “elves” and hauled a load of donated toys to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. There he dons a Santa suit and delivers them to cancer-stricken children.
But this Santa doesn’t spend his off-time making toys. Rather, between the jolly ole guy’s bi-annual dose of smiling faces, he and his team of “elves” scan the south Georgia horizon for the stuff that whips childhood cancer — lots and lots of dollars. Farris figures that over the past 50 years he and his team have collected around $3 million for the cancer hospital.
Farris’ final stop prior to making his 100th trip to Memphis last weekend was to gather toys at the Deerfield-Windsor lower school on Beattie Road. The first time Deerfield students donated toys for the St. Jude cause was in 1979 or thereabouts, said lower school director, Cary Stoudenmire.
“Mrs. Dale Joiner, a second grade teacher, was here then and it was her idea,” Stoudenmire said, “She thought it would be good for students to donate something — since they were so blessed. We encourage the children to buy the toys with money they had earned or raised somehow. A lot of our kids have realized the importance of sacrifice and giving through this program.”
Many of the Deerfield students who began that tradition are parents themselves, but the new crop of youngsters gave Farris and his crew a warm reception along with the toys and money. After a group of students holding individual placards took the stage to spell out ST JUDES, the audience, including parents, were treated to Christmas carols performed by each class in turn.
In addition to the toys, some of the Deerfield kids went the extra mile in finding money for St Jude. The fourth grade boys raised $333 during a cookie bake sale. Laura Morrissey, a third-grader, designed, made and sold Valentine cards.
Farris began his life as a St. Jude fundraiser even before the hospital was in existence. In 1957 Farris, along with his sister, Louise Nahra, along with Helen Belcher and some others, attended an Atlanta nightclub show featuring Danny Thomas, an up-and-coming television actor and entertainer.
In earlier days, Thomas had struggled with his career and prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, promising to build a shrine to the saint in return for helping him succeed. When Thomas’ career began to blossom, the spirit of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was born.
After the show, Thomas made his rounds from table to table, working the crowd to donate for the project. When the actor spoke of leukemia, Farris was hooked.
“A really good friend of mine in high school had leukemia,” Farris said, “and it just broke my heart when that young girl died. Danny Thomas asked us at the show if we could go back to Douglas and raise some money. Back then he was looking for place to build the hospital but there wasn’t a city that wanted it.”
Farris and his group became St. Jude supporters and early members of ALSAC, or American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities. Farris, like Thomas, is of Lebanese descent. In fact, as the two men became close friends, they discovered that their parents had lived only a few miles from each other in a small town in Lebanon. Thomas came to refer to Farris as his “little brother.”
After the show, Farris returned to Douglas and the Albany area to solicit funds for the hospital project personally and to help form some of the earliest ALSAC teen chapters. Farris said that as much as anyone else, teens are the power behind south Georgia fundraising. Farris himself regularly visits area attorneys, clinics and business firms.
“We used to meet every Thursday night at The Golden Glow Dairy on South Slappey,” Farris said. We elected officers there and talked about the money we collected. Years ago, when we went to Memphis we chartered a Trailways bus and close to 50 of us went up there together. The cost of a bus is way too high these days, so now we just take eight or nine people in a van. Some members of the team have been to Memphis about 18 times.”
Since July, 1962, just five months after the hospital opened, Farris has visited the children twice each each year, including portraying a “Summer Santa” for St. Jude’s “Christmas in July” theme. Even some of the younger kids are confused at first.
“We just tell them Santa is on vacation from making all those toys,” Farris said, “and he decided to stop by to visit and give out some of the extras.”
Lindsey Wilkerson, brand ambassador for ALSAC, has worked with Farris for more than eight years now.
“Joe takes very seriously the Danny Thomas theme that ‘no child should die in the dawn of life.’ she said. “When our kids realize that Santa has not forgotten them — that he’s managed to find them even where they are, the smiles are just overwhelming.”
Farris and his crew reached Memphis December 16, and the following Monday he was preparing to play Santa and to deliver toys and the $5,568 in donations collected for cancer research. The manager of the Memphis Holiday Inn Select where the crew had stayed for free, just happened to mention that he was preparing for a meeting with the mayor.
“He ought to come down here, for this thing,” Farris said, and laughed. “I’ve come up here 100 times now and he maybe he ought to give me the key to the city or something.”
Farris wasn’t far from the mark. Although the mayor was unavailable for the event, during a special reception for Joe Farris and his team, Farris was presented with an official mayoral proclamation, read by ALSAC CEO, Richard Shadyac, declaring Monday, December 19, “Joe Farris, The Real Santa Claus Day” in Memphis.
“I just about cried when they did that,” Farris said. “I knew they were planning something for this trip, but they wouldn’t tell me what it was.”
ALSAC had more in store for Santa, including a special video, months in production, featuring clips of Farris as Santa and with those who worked with him through the years. When Farris saw the early clips of him and Danny Thomas together, he “got a little emotional,” according to Alexis Annaratone, communications director at ALSAC, who has worked closely with Farris.
In addition, plaques were awarded to Farris, his sister Louise Nahra and Joann Moore for 55 years of dedicated service to the St. Jude’s fundraising operation.
According to Thomas’ original concept, no child at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is denied treatment based on race, religion, national origin or ability to pay. In fact, all costs associated with treatment at St Jude is free to the family of the child.
Daily operating costs at St. Jude hospital is $1.7 million, almost all of which is provided by public contributions. In 1962, when the cancer center began, the cure rate for all childhood cancers was just 20 percent. Today, that cancer cure rate is 80 percent.