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May 08, 2019

An Award-Winning Family

Tony Thomas is the third in his family to be awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

Melissa Byers
  • Courtesy Tony Thomas
  • Tony and Marlo with their medals, May 11, 2019

    Courtesy Tony Thomas
  • Marlo and Tony Thomas admire their father's Ellis Island Medal of Honor

    Courtesy Tony Thomas
  • Marlo and Tony Thomas

    Courtesy Tony Thomas
  • Tony Thomas with St. Jude's patients

    Courtesy Tony Thomas
  • Courtesy Tony Thomas
  • Tony and Marlo Thomas on set with their father Danny Thomas

    Courtesy Tony Thomas
  • Tony and Marlo Thomas with their Emmy awards

    Courtesy Tony Thomas

As the proud son of an award-winning immigrant family, Tony Thomas is thrilled to be this year’s recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

According to Wikipedia, “The Ellis Island Medal of Honor is an American award founded by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations which are presented annually to American citizens whose accomplishments in their field and inspired service to the United States are cause for celebration. “

Thomas is the third in his family to be so honored. His father, famed comedian and actor Danny Thomas, and his sister, actress and activist Marlo Thomas, also have received the award.

Thomas says, “I'm as excited about this as I've been about just about anything. My dad having won this in 1990 and Marlo winning it in '99, and now them asking me to be a recipient is ... It's quite an honor. It's quite an honor.

"It all leads back to the beginning with Dad and his profound pride in his heritage and wanting to show America how grateful he was for letting his family in, which really started the concept of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in the sense of going to his people of heritage and asking them to show America how grateful we are and to help build the hospital.

"As the years have gone by, Marlo and Terre and I and now our family, our children, are all very involved in the hospital. It just feels great. It's all a full circle of giving back and being honored, our heritage being honored for giving back. It gives me a great deal of pride.”

A prolific and award-winning producer, Thomas also takes pride in the work he has done with his producing partners. He says, “In television we ... my partners and I, Paul Witt and Susan Harris, we always like to do things that had meaning. Some of it was quite commercial and just that.

"But the ones that stand out for us are the ones that had meaning, from Brian's Song with my partner Paul, which today is still an important piece of work that is run in schools talking about race relationships, which brought a lot of topics to TV in primetime that had never been brought before.

"And Golden Girls, which of course talked about it's not over till it's over. There's life after, and other families can be created with other people, and you can still have a full life after your nests are empty or your loved ones are gone. Those kinds of things.

"Even Empty Nest and Benson to some degree. He started out as a butler and he became a lieutenant governor. There was a cliffhanger of whether or not he won the governorship at the end of seven, but we didn't go past that. We didn't go past seven, so we don't know if he won. But he did.

"All of those things mean something to us as producers that we were able to say some things along the way. That just really meant a lot to us.”

Thomas credits his upbringing and his father for much of the way he looks at the world and how his work with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has evolved throughout his life.

He says, “Those are the principles Dad founded it upon, that no child or family should have to pay for anything, the treatment, the food, the lodging, the transportation, anything, and that everything we did was shared freely with the world immediately so that they could take advantage of our knowledge. That's what we've been doing ever since.

"Even in this day of crazy competition and even in this medical world where we all have one thing in common which is to cure a child of cancer, we hold nothing back. We just get it out there. If they're the ones that crack the code because of the pieces of the puzzle that we gave them, wonderful. The code must be cracked.

"That's the mission. We have become the world's leading research and treatment center for childhood cancer. We're very proud of that. We are the beacon.    

“We have a scientific advisory board that we meet with every year all from the major institutions across the country. When we talk about things to take on in pediatric cancer, a few years back one of the scientists said, ‘If not St. Jude, who?’ That's been our mantra ever since, including the Pediatric Genome Project and everything else, that if not St. Jude, who?

"Which actually is why we just started the St. Jude Global. We were always into the international outreach, but now we have a formal St. Jude Global Program that the WHO has partnered with us because they see us as the leading institution. We're going throughout the world setting up conglomerates of institutions in various regions to help train them and have them train others.

"Hopefully we can make a dent in the population of children across the globe that are still dying of cancer when they shouldn't be because we have these cures.

“It's all really good stuff. This medal has crystallized it all for me. My dad won Emmys. My sister won Emmys. I won Emmys. That alone was a delight for me because they're a tough act to follow.

"It was great to be part of that tradition, and then the tradition of the medals now and always has been the underlying family ... It's in our DNA to make sure that St. Jude Children's Research Hospital prospers and stays on top of the cutting edge of science and medicine and treatment. I felt like this underneath all the time, but this medal pulled it all together for me. It's caused me a great deal of pride.”

Thomas's sister Terre is also deeply involved in St. Jude. According to the St. Jude web site, "Terre Thomas has been a member of the ALSAC/St. Jude Boards of Directors and Governors since 1980. During those years, she has participated fully in the decisions that have led to the hospital's current expansion.

"Terre has been a spokesperson for the hospital before many groups across the nation. It is a role that comes to her quite naturally since she grew up learning about St. Jude at the family dinner table."

That family pride is being passed down to the next generation of the Thomas family, as well.

"Thomas notes, ”My kids, my nephew, my niece. Everybody does their part. My niece is a heavy fundraiser and created a whole program called Yoga Gives. My nephew is into Music Gives. My daughter Kate is very active in the digital end and my daughter Christina, who is a third grade teacher, is involved in discussions with St. Jude regarding developing new and more up-to-date programs for the grammar school kids and the young kids as well, and the youngest of kids.

"It's a whole family affair. It's who we are. It's who the Thomas family is, basically.”

The family is not only involved at the top levels, but in the hospital itself, as well. Thomas says, “Marlo is the international outreach director. I've been on the board for close to 20 years. Prior to being on the board, I was a member of the Thomas family and fundraising and speaking.

"But I've been on the board on in the governance and the long-range planning and marketing for 20 years now. Close to 20 years. I'm very involved. I go back there five times a year, minimum.

"My dad, when it was a small hospital, he knew those kids and those families very well. Marlo and I do that now, and we do it digitally. We not only see them there but we keep in touch with the families digitally and through the Internet, through emails or Facebook postings and such. They post. We're constantly encouraging them and helping to be part of their lives.

“It's very gratifying. It's also very devastating when we lose these families, we lose these children. We don't want them gone. That's why we're still here. It makes it very meaningful to know why we're there. We get very involved. I'm very passionate about the board meetings.

"I'm in the board meetings. I'm in the discussions of where we're going, how we're going, what we're spending, what to advance, what not to advance. That can be all-consuming.

"Sometimes you have to walk through the halls, get out of those conference rooms and walk through the halls and remember why you're doing it all, because it truly becomes a giant business to steer. You get back to the hallways and you get refueled to go back into the meetings and remember why it's all being done.”

Family is an ongoing theme with Thomas. He says, “It all started with Dad. We're just following in his footsteps as fiercely as we can. I'm very proud of the fact that Marlo, Terre, and I came up with a campaign called Thanks in Giving which just passed the $1 billion mark in raising funds for St. Jude. It's turned out to be the largest fundraising campaign St. Jude ever had or has.

"The fact that the three of us did this, created this particular campaign, Marlo spearheading it with her tenacity and getting so many corporations involved. It's gratifying to know that we've, for lack of a better term, left a divot and really do something meaningful for the institution.

"Dad had created it and set it up in such a pristine way. It was our job, first of all, not to screw anything up. It's our job hopefully to build upon it. We're gratified. It certainly has all of our brains in it. It's gratifying we could come up with a meaningful way to raise funds for the hospital.”

Along with funding, Thomas wants to make sure that awareness is also in the forefront of the work. He says, “[Parents] see an ad that we've done with Jennifer Aniston or Michael Strahan or Sofia Vergara, and they realize, ‘Those are my child's symptoms.’

"We have so many stories like that where parents have watched some of those spots we've created for the campaign and they think about the fact that they went to their doctor and said, ‘You keep telling me it's this, but I just saw this. I want this test.’ They run the test. They find out the child does have something like that.

"The next thing you know, they're on their way to St. Jude or the doctors are constantly consulting with St. Jude about the course of action to take in their own city if the family does not want to come to St. Jude for various personal reasons.  

“The awareness is just as important as the funds. The funds have really kept us the juggernaut in the field. I've asked people younger than me, ‘Why do you give to St. Jude?’ They say, ‘Because my grandparents did.’ They don't even have a full answer other than, ‘My grandparents did.’

"That's all my dad. He laid that groundwork and literally going city to city during his downtime of the television show and his nightclub act and rallying the people. Those people have kept it a family tradition just like we are.

"It's kind of a scene, now that the three of us are, in my mind, now that the three of us have these strong elements in common of show business and the medal of honor and of course the work with St. Jude. It's the family business, family affair, and what we're all about as families. It's meaningful. It's meaningful.”

Also meaningful is the fact that Thomas will get to share his special day at the Ellis Island Medal of Honor ceremony with his family.

He says, “My kids are going to be there. My grandkids are going to be there. I'm very touched by that. I know when my dad won the Presidential Medal of Honor, my kids were there. We were there of course, and my kids were there. He said in his speech that he was most excited and moved by the fact that his grandchildren were there.

"Although my grandkids are a little younger, some of them, I'm very pleased that they're going to be there and be part of it and get a taste of that too. I was very lucky. I got a taste of what my father was doing and lessons from him and then from Marlo, and I carried it on easily and gladly because it's just in us. Dad put it in us from the very beginning.

"I like to think that I'm doing that with my children and grandchildren.”


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