30 Years of Country Cares: How Randy Owen’s Dream of Hope and Partnership With St. Jude Came to Life
It's been 30 years since Randy Owen, frontman of the country group Alabama, stood in front of an audience of industry members at the annual Country Radio Seminar and asked his friends and colleagues for their help. Owen wanted to launch a campaign to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and he hoped that the country music industry would join him in rallying behind the cause.
Did they ever. Owen's vision became Country Cares for St. Jude Kids, a series of radiothons and fundraising efforts that, since 1989, has raised more than $800 million to help St. Jude treat children with pediatric cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, as well as to research cures. Today, more than 200 country radio stations nationwide participate in Country Cares, and the program has influenced similar efforts among gospel, rock and Hispanic radio platforms.
None of it would have been possible, however, if Owen hadn't first thrown his weight behind the cause when he was asked by St. Jude founder Danny Thomas, an entertainer and celebrity himself. The fact that Thomas was in the entertainment industry worked in his favor after he partnered with Owen.
"I got my first break in radio before most of you were born, doing voices on the old Lone Ranger network show out of Detroit," Thomas wrote in an impassioned letter to the radio industry in 1990, to rally its members behind its cause. "Through my years since then, I have developed a thorough knowledge and appreciation for both the entertainment and business side of radio, and I can honestly say that the offer we are making is one that you will be proud to accept."
Since 1989, Country Cares for St. Jude Kids has raised more than $800 million to help St. Jude treat children with pediatric cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, as well as to research cures.
At the same time that Thomas endeared radio executives to Country Cares from a business angle, he was giving Owen a personal introduction to St. Jude.
"Danny always carried a cigar when I was in the hospital. He didn't smoke it, but [he carried it around," Owen related, chuckling at the memory, at a press conference during a kick-off weekend to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Country Cares program. "That first time [Thomas took me on a tour of the hospital], we were looking out a window, and they were starting to build a new part [of the building]. And I said, 'Mr. Thomas, what will it take to build this new part?' He said, '$100 million.' And then I think about how far we've come since then."
In Country Cares' nascency, raising that sum of money was a daunting proposition. The first radiothon to benefit the hospital was held by WKSJ in Mobile, Ala., in 1982, and raised $178,000; in 1987, a two-day event at WYAY in Atlanta, Ga., raised $534,000. But the first official Country Cares radiothon on Nov. 19, 1989 -- set to last 12 hours, feature 45 artists and air across more than 800 country radio stations, according to a Country Aircheck article written by Lon Helton and published at the time -- only raised about $1 million.
After a couple tough years of trying this nationwide method, Owen and company reorganized. Instead of centralizing the effort, they left it up to the individual stations to determine what would be best for each of their audiences -- and that's when the power of Country Cares truly became apparent. The project took trial and error to get off the ground, but no blueprint existed for Owen to follow; no radio fundraising effort of this scale and type had ever been launched before.
Through the Years: Country Stars With St. Jude Patients
Country Cares was an unprecedented program, but the cause itself was unprecedented, too: Thomas had no medical expertise or special knowledge of cancer, but he did have a big dream. In the 1940s, Thomas was a struggling young actor and comedian seeking mainstream recognition and a way to pay the bills. So, he turned to prayer, asking St. Jude of Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes, to "help me find my way in life, and I will build you a shrine" -- and when Thomas' film and television career gained traction, he remembered his promise.
In the '50s, Thomas' vision of a children's hospital devoted to curing catastrophic illnesses solidified. It was a daunting task, as Thomas had no background in or experience with medicine, and the overall survival rate of children with pediatric cancer at the time was only 20 percent. However, with the help of his celebrity friends and business partners, Thomas raised the money to build St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which officially opened its doors on Feb. 4, 1962.
Since then, St. Jude has treated children from all 50 states, and from around the world. Research and new innovations produced in the facility have helped push the overall U.S. childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to 80 percent; survival rates for most common form of pediatric cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), have jumped from 4 percent to 94 percent, thanks largely to research and treatment conducted at St. Jude.
Because Thomas' vision was to help all children, regardless of their economic status, families of St. Jude patients never receive a bill for treatment, and the hospital also covers food, transportation, housing and follow-up care. Perhaps more groundbreaking, however, is the fact that Thomas' facility has provided, since the beginning, top-quality treatment to children of all races, even in the still-segregated South. St. Jude was the first fully integrated children's hospital in the southern United States, with black and white patients dining together, using the same restroom facilities and being treated in the same rooms.
As much as St. Jude has made history with historical milestones and life-saving statistics, at its core, the hospital focuses on individual patient experiences. At that press conference, Owen warmly greeted a young man named Caleb, a St. Jude patient for the past 17 years. Caleb and his family first came to St. Jude when he was 13 months old, after he was diagnosed with Mucopolysaccharidosis Type 1, or Hurler Syndrome, an extremely rare and progressively debilitating disease that often results in death before a child reaches adolescence. When Caleb was diagnosed in the early 2000s, his odds were even worse.
"There was no cure for this, and everything we read said that he was going to become blind, he was going to become deaf, he was mentally going to decline, that his organs would start shutting down," Caleb's mother Kelly reflects, "and between the age of five and 10, he would die."
However, when the family arrived at St. Jude, they found a doctor who could provide Caleb with a transplant and help manage his disease. Through surgery after surgery, Caleb persisted, and in the meantime, he began to live a full life. His treatment from St. Jude paid off: While Caleb still needs a team of doctors to manage his condition, he recently turned 18, and has so far outlived his estimated lifespan at the time of his diagnosis by years.
"All of this began with two people, two celebrities: our founder, Danny Thomas, and Randy Owen." -- Richard Shadyac, ALSAC president and CEO
"I was going back to thinking about the very first thing I remember from Country Cares," Kelly continues. "That's him standing on a chair going, 'If you are famous, I'm going to need you to line up in front of me. Because, you know, he has confidence issues! Or Kellie Pickler telling him she wanted to kiss him on the cheek, but he turned her down, so she stole one from him and embarrassed him ...
"[He has] these amazing memories that most kids don't get," Kelly points out. "He's still fighting, but he's got a lifetime of memories that have already been built. They've been built here, and they've been built through Country Cares."
Every day, St. Jude turns its attention to new children, providing them hope, world-class treatment and the ability to make memories and live a full life in the meantime.
"Is there any other industry that has had more impact on a philanthropic cause than Country Cares for St. Jude Kids? I don't think that there is," mused Richard Shadyac, the president and CEO of ALSAC, as he reflected on Owen's tenure helming the program. "When you think about the money, the one $800 million that has been raised, we should focus on the lives that have been touched.
"And all of this began with two people, two celebrities: our founder, Danny Thomas, and Randy Owen."
TownSquare Media has raised $7 million over the past five years. You can help too. Become a Partner in Hope by calling 800-982-9965 or donate at St Jude.org.
Country Cares: See Randy Owen With St. Jude Patients Through the Years