Tag Archives: Peter Decker

Danny Thomas: The Miracle of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Danny Thomas featureA destitute comedic actor and night club singer prays to the saint of hopeless causes and makes a vow to build a shrine to St. Jude if he should be blessed with success.  Years later, the entertainer fulfills his vow by becoming the founder of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital where miracles happen everyday.  What a plot for a movie!  But that’s the Danny Thomas story, and I was privileged to know him and to witness his vow come true.

Danny Thomas It all began

In the 1940s, Danny Thomas worked steadily on network radio shows as a comedic character actor. Film roles during the early 1950s in The Jazz Singer with Peggy Lee, and I’ll See You In My Dreams with Doris Day propelled Danny into television where he enjoyed great success with Make Room For Daddy, The Danny Thomas Show that had a 13-year run (1953 to 1965).

Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee

Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee

Producing his show at Desilu Studios where Lucille Ball was filming her iconic series, I Love Lucy, Danny partnered with legendary television producers Sheldon Leonard and Aaron Spelling to co-produce three landmark television series: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Mod Squad.  Danny is credited with discovering Mary Tyler Moore in 1961 when he recommended to Carl Reiner that she be cast in the Dick Van Dyke Show.  Danny also produced three television series for Walter Brennan—The Real McCoys, The Tycoon, and The Guns of Will Sonnet, and he continued to work in television through the 1980s.

Bess and Pete Decker at an early St. Jude fundraiser

Bess and Pete Decker at an early St. Jude fundraiser

My personal connection to Danny Thomas was facilitated by Peter Decker.  In the 1970s, before I left my home city of Norfolk, Virginia, Pete and Bess Decker were my best friends.  Pete was a criminal attorney, humanitarian, and a talented musician and singer who lived to receive every honor that a grateful city and state can award an individual. When Pete and I got together, he was already on the Board of Governors and Directors of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis that Danny, a fellow Lebanese, had founded in 1962.

As Pete’s friend, I joined the Board of Directors for St. Jude of Southeastern Virginia, and I served as secretary at our meetings. Through this 20-member board Pete organized a regional telethon and other events that over a 50-year period of his service raised tens of millions of dollars for St. Jude, a hospital dedicated to the treatment of sick children regardless of race, religion, or the ability to pay.

The focus on cancer and other catastrophic diseases in children paid great dividends in 1996 when two doctors from St. Jude’s Immunology Department were recipients of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for key discoveries in how immune systems function to kill virus-infected cells.

Pete Decker and Danny Thomas

Pete Decker and Danny Thomas

Peter Decker made over 500 appearances with Danny Thomas in concerts, telethons, and other fundraising events for St. Jude.  As a singer, Pete made records with the Pat Curtis Orchestra that were sold to benefit St. Jude.  Pete and I performed impromptu together in clubs where musician friends would invite us on stage, and I even wrote a cabaret act for us that we performed with the Pat Curtis Jazz Band. I was surprised, however, when Pete asked me to record a song for the Southeastern Virginia St. Jude telethon.

To diversify the telethon entertainment, Pete wanted me to do a big band pop standard, and he provided a recorded Nelson Riddle orchestral arrangement of “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie.”  I sang the song with the recorded accompaniment in a recording studio and later lip-synced the song in a television studio taping against a uniform St. Jude telethon backdrop.  During the telethon, Pete could introduce me, and I would appear on tape as if I were actually on stage.  I accepted, however, that my performance was little more than late-night telethon filler.

Monty and Peter in cabaret act

Monty and Peter in cabaret act

A few weeks after the Norfolk telethon, Pete called me to say that my tape performance of It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie had been chosen for the master telethon talent reel that would be provided to St. Jude telethons produced in more than a dozen markets where the same stage backdrop would be used.  In a sea of rock and roll, I was the quiet romantic crooner alternative.  I waited in vain to be discovered, but Pete and Danny appreciated the effort.

The recording of my St. Jude performance was reprised at our middle daughter’s wedding.   As a surprise to me, the bride danced with her father to his recording of “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie.  Only the family was in on the plot. I remained the mystery singer.

The most time that I spent with Danny Thomas was at a small dinner party given for Danny and Phyllis McGuire at the Deckers’ home in Norfolk.  Phyllis was still a statuesque beauty who you will remember as the lead singer of the McGuire Sisters. After the trio won the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts television show competition, they produced a succession of hit records on the Coral Records label.  With number one hits like “Sincerely” (1954), “The Theme from Picnic (1956) and “Sugartime (1958), the group had 30 chart hits over a 16-year period.  The McGuire Sisters appeared on all of the top television variety shows during the 1950s and 1960s and even made the cover of Life Magazine. On tour for St. Jude with Phyllis McGuire, Danny, in his early 60s, welcomed the chance to relax at the Deckers.

The McGuire Sisters

The McGuire Sisters

The last time that I saw Danny Thomas was at his home in 1975 or 1976 where he hosted a reception following the final day of the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic (1970 to 1984). Danny was an avid golfer, and two PGA tour events bore his name.  I was in Memphis on business as the Associate Publisher of Holiday Magazine, and was thus available to attend.  Entertainer Jimmy Dean, famous for his hit record “Big John” and later for his breakfast sausage, was a memorable guest.  My former boss, George Crump, who owned country music radio stations, had once held Dean’s management contract, so we had a common connection.

Danny Thomas In memory

Just like everything else in the life of Danny Thomas, St. Jude was the focus and financial beneficiary of the golfing event.  If St. Jude himself had anything to do with Danny’s great television success, the blessing has been repaid exponentially at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I am so glad to have been a witness to Danny’s and to Peter’s devotion to a great work of life.

Danny Thomas with some of the children at St. Jude

Danny Thomas with some of the children at St. Jude

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The Amazing Peter Decker

The couples Joynes and Deckers at a Metro Magazine party

The couples Joynes and Deckers at a Metro Magazine party

I was Peter G. Decker’s friend, confidant, and social pal throughout the 1970s when Peter was in his mid-30s and I was in my early 30s and living in Norfolk, VA.  Although Pete was already a member of the board of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a very successful trial lawyer, and a popular emcee and entertainer, these were fun-filled years before he accepted the leadership roles that prompted so many subsequent local, state, regional, and national honors.

Before I came into the Lebanese and Greek family circle of Pete and Bess Decker, my social manners were those of a straight-laced Englishman.  I would shake hands, but never hug.  But with the Deckers I had to hug and even accept kisses from all their parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins!  My rigid posture on greeting Decker friends and family gave me away, and Pete seemed to enjoy making me sweat, especially at Easter when I joined all the Decker family men in visiting the homebound elderly. As I followed the line of men into a stranger’s house, I was hugged and kissed just like all the others. I thus began to melt under the great warmth of their culture, and I came to believe that the English social restraint that I had been taught was plainly wrongheaded.

I will never forget the time that Pete was hosting in his home a refugee from the Lebanese Civil War, a cousin who was a dentist.  By way of introduction, Pete told the bearded young man that I was his brother, and then he said to both of us, “Kiss your brother.”  I hugged the stranger and kissed him on both cheeks.  Tears filled my eyes.  Peter Decker had a great gift for getting into your heart.  What the gesture meant to the man who was losing his homeland, I can only imagine.

What can you give to givers like Pete and Bess Decker?  My then-wife, Theresa, a Louisiana Cajun, could cook special dishes for them, but we could never match their excessive generosity to us.  I did, however, manage to give them memorable creative gifts twice.  Once on Pete’s birthday, I had an artist render a caricature of Pete’s head from a photograph that I provided.  Then I designed a business-type card with the caricature and the bold words “I’m One of Pete’s People” and presented him with a box of 500 of them.  Pete loved it!  About two weeks later, Pete called me.  He needed to print more cards.  His people were begging for them, and how could he say no?

The "business" card that I designed for Pete

The “business” card that I designed for Pete

The second memorable gift was a poem that I wrote and had framed as a birthday gift for Bess in 1978.  My gift was opened next to last at a party at their home.  Bess cried when she read it.  Poor Pete, he had to follow my gift with his own—a big diamond ring.  It was unfair, and he never let me forget it with faces of mock anger.  Later, he confided to me that the framed poem was hung on the back of Bess’s bathroom door—her most private space.

Peter owned a great Hatteras-made fishing boat, The Gannet, docked at Rudee Inlet at Virginia Beach. President Jimmy Carter had fished on it; and when it was not a working charter boat, it hosted Pete’s friends and VIPs.  Captain Fred Feller, a former Norfolk Police detective, was the major investigator for Pete’s law firm, but what Freddy really loved was fishing the Gulf Stream for tuna and other deep-seas fish.

A happy fishing day on Pete's Gannet

A happy fishing day on Pete’s Gannet

On several occasions, Pete asked me to host a fishing expedition on The Gannet when he was unavailable. The guests would bring gourmet lunch items, snacks, beer, and a bottle of premium whiskey to be served during the two-hour run to the beach after the fishing day.  I brought my camera to document the events and to make sure that each guest later received a gift album of the best photographs.  One great trip included a city councilman, our Congressman and his wife, the Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, a Circuit Court Judge, plus three more of us who also caught big fish.

Pete introduced me to Danny Thomas and the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and to Telly Savalas when Telly was at the top of his Kojak television and movie fame.  Pete was always inclusive, never exclusive. His circle of friends in Hampton Roads was international and diverse in social class.  Walk into a restaurant with Pete, and he seemed to know everybody in the place.  From people seated at the tables to the wait staff and chef, they all wanted to greet Pete.  Bess had to deal with the situation that often saw us seated at our table while Pete toured the other tables and even the bar.

Pete was also an over-generous tipper, and if you went out for the evening with the Deckers, you had to face the fact that Pete would not allow you to pay any part of the bill. You had to be very creative if you wanted to reciprocate the Deckers’ generosity. One time I helped set up a basketball goal in the Deckers’ back yard and tried to coach their three sons—Peter III, Paul, and Phillip—on the finer points of the game.  Other times I took party photographs and ensured that Pete and Bess had album copies.

The couples Joynes and Deckers at a Western Night gala

The couples Joynes and Deckers at a Western Night gala

What I remember most was the fun that we had together.  We were still young and spontaneous enough to engage baby sitters on short notice and join other friends for an impromptu restaurant dinner party. Pete, who had played stand-up bass and sang in bands throughout college and law school, knew every working musician in the area.  So if there was live music anywhere that we went, Pete was invited on stage.  Knowing that I had also performed professionally as a band singer, Pete always insisted that I join him on stage to sing some old standard that the band was sure to know.

For an elaborate corporate Christmas party that I was managing, I wrote a cabaret act for us that featured the Pat Curtis band.  Our show was a hit, and when Pete sang a romantic ballad a la recording star Tom Jones, I arranged for two pretty women to throw panties at Pete on stage. It caught Pete by complete surprise!  Too bad we didn’t get a photo of the expression on his face when the screaming women threw “their” panties.

Pete and I performing our cabaret act

Pete and I performing our cabaret act

Even the best of friends can be separated by their respective destinies.  Now divorced, I went to New Orleans to collaborate with my co-author on a new edition of our best-selling Insiders’ Guide to New Orleans, and there I met Pat, now my wife of thirty years.  As editor and advisor, she has helped me create over 50 major literary works since our marriage.

Pete DeckerPete grew in service and public stature to become one of the most celebrated Virginians of his generation. On a different path, I withdrew to write the literature of my heart and to fulfill the will to art that revealed itself as my life’s purpose.

In remembrance, and with profound gratitude, being with Peter and Bess Decker those long ago years provided me with some of the best days of my life.  The family values that they demonstrated allows me now to embrace everyone that I meet. Any warmth of character and personality that I now possess once began with hugs among the Deckers.

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Filed under Family, Famous People, Memoirs, Writing