'Santa Joe' set to drive sleigh to St. Jude's

Photo by Barry Levine

Photo by Barry Levine

ALBANY, Ga. -- Shortly after the morning worship service at his church in Douglas lets out today, one of Southwest Georgia's finest ambassadors will leave on a familiar 550-mile drive.

Joe Farris and a group of five or six "elves" will begin the journey to Memphis, Tenn., where he will don his red fur jacket, pull on a snow white beard and distribute gifts to patients on Tuesday.

It will be the 99th time that Farris, who has strong connections to Albany and Pelham as well, has made the trip to bring a little happiness to the young patients who are battling for their lives.

"December will be the 100th," Farris said in a phone interview last week from his Douglas home. "I can't believe it."

Known as "the real Santa Claus" in many circles, he has been making the long drive for half a century. Originally, he went at Christmas time, but added a July visit early on when treatments were less promising and expected longevity for young patients fighting cancers such as leukemia was much shorter.

"When I first went there," Farris has said, "all the doctors could do was give a patient a pint or two of blood so they could live a little longer."

When St. Jude opened in 1962, the prospects of pediatric leukemia patients were indeed grim. The cure rate for patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) -- the most common form of the disease -- was only 4 percent. The cure rate for childhood cancers overall was 20 percent.

In the years since, the cure rate for ALL has risen to 94 percent and the cure rate for overall childhood cancers has quadrupled to 80 percent, due largely to the research conducted at the facility founded by entertainer Danny Thomas.

Farris, who has helped raise more than $2 million in donations, began fundraising work for what would become St. Jude Hospital in 1957.

"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 last week. "I tell you, that Danny Thomas was a real inspiration to everybody."

And Farris, who Thomas affectionately called "little brother," found his niche. Farris spends the six months between his trips drumming up financial support for the cause he has championed and collecting gifts for the patients.

For the past several years, Douglas has declared July 1 to be "Joe Farris Day" in the county seat of Coffee County. Farris uses the event as a way to generate support for St. Jude. This year, he collected $1,147 in donations.

"Oh," he said, "we did real good."

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.