The St. Jude Santa, Joe Farris, was at Deerfield-Windsor Schools lower campus Friday to pick up Christmas presents to deliver to critically ill children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Next week will mark his 103rd trip to the hospital, a trek he has made twice yearly for half a century. (Staff Photo: Terry Lewis)
Deerfield-Windsor students donate gifts for St. Jude Hospital
Each year, students at Deerfield-Windsor School of Albany's lower campus donate gifts for Joe Farris, the St. Jude Santa, to carry to young patients at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. The program coincides with Farris' Christmastime trip. Farris, who has made the trip more than 100 times, also takes gifts in July. The gifts were collected by Deerfield_Windsor headmaster Dave Davies at the lower campus' Christmas program on Dec. 20, 2013. (Vidoe by Terry Lewis)
ALBANY — Next week, for the 103rd time in 56 years, Joe Farris and a crew of five or six “elves” will load trucks with Christmas presents and will embark of a 550-mile trek to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn..
Known in some circles as “the Real Santa,” Farris, who spent 34 years in the Pelham City Schools before retiring in 1992, will spread joy to critically ill children, as he has done twice yearly since the 1960s.
On Friday, He was at Deerfield-Windsor School’s Lower Campus to pick up presents donated during the school’s 34th annual St. Jude Christmas Program.
“The most important thing is to make the children happy,” Farris, 84, said. “When they sit in my lap and say, ‘I love you, Santa,’ it makes my heart melt.”
Starting in the late 1950s, Farris helped raise money for the late Danny Thomas to build St. Jude, which is the nation’s only pediatric cancer center where families never pay for anything.
“It took us five years to raise enough money to start work on the hospital. We didn’t even know where we were going to build it,” Farris recalled.
When the hospital finally opened in 1962, the prognosis for pediatric leukemia patients was bleak. The cure rate for victims of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) — the most common form of the disease — was just 4 percent. The cure rate for childhood cancers overall was only 20 percent.
“When I was first there, all the doctors could do was give the patient a pint or two of blood so they could live a little longer,” Farris said.
Today, the cure rate for ALL is 94 percent. The cure rate for all childhood cancers is now 80 percent.
His trips as the St. Jude Santa evolved from a request from the hospital founder. After the facility was built, Farris said, he was approached by Thomas, who asked if Farris could do something other than raise money.
“Danny then asked me, ‘Can you do something to make the children happy?’” Farris said.
Farris began collecting toys for Christmas trips, then, because of the mortality rate, added a second trip in July. The cure rate has risen dramatically, but Farris still makes the biannual trips.
Farris has many memories of the past 56 years. One of his fondest, he said, is that of a 5-year-old girl in Nashville.
“Marlo (Thomas’ daughter) found out about her and got her into St. Jude,” Farris said. “We asked her what she wanted for Christmas and she said a color TV. So when I got back home I went on WALB to try to raise money for the gift.
“I was on the air when a woman from Sylvester called and said she had gotten one for her daughter, but wanted that little girl to have it. We had it on a bus to Memphis the next day.
“The funny part,” he added, “is WALG radio also sent a box of records along with the TV — records of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. The little girl was disappointed, she said, ‘I don’t want these corny records … I want rock ‘n’ roll!”
Farris said the radio station made sure she had rock ‘n’ roll records the next week.
When asked how much longer he can keep making the journeys north, Farris looked a bit wistful. “As long as the Good Lord allows me to walk,” he said. “This is extra special for me.”
On average, 7,800 active patients visit the hospital each year, most of whom are treated on an outpatient basis. St. Jude has 78 inpatient beds and treats upwards of 260 patients each day. It costs $1.8 million a day, mostly from private contributions, to operate the facility and St. Jude reports that over the past five years, 81 cents out of every dollar contributed has been spent to support research and treatment at the hospital.