By Theron Larkins
NEW SWEDEN — In 1948, a radio show brought its listeners into a room at Boston Children’s Hospital. There, a 12-year-old lymphoma patient of Dr. Sidney Farber patiently awaited his chance to be heard on Ralph Edwards’ national broadcast of “This is Your Life.” Thanks to The Variety Club of New England (now the Variety Children’s Charity of New England) Edwards was made aware of “Jimmy’s” story, which told he was a die-hard fan of baseball, especially his favorite team the Boston Braves. Due to spending long periods of time in hospital rooms with no television “Jimmy” was rarely able to watch his favorite team, or even the sport that he loved so much. This inspired Edwards to set up not only an interview, but a special visit from “Jimmy’s” beloved Boston Braves.
To protect his privacy the boy was referred to simply as “Jimmy.” As an avid Boston Braves fan, “Jimmy” was delighted to find the interview would also include a chance to meet all of his favorite baseball players from the Braves. His joyful shock and excitement was heard on thousands of radios across the nation, as he joked and laughed with the players as they encouraged listeners to champion the fight against cancer. During a time when only 10% of pediatric cancer patients survived, this young baseball fan captured the hearts of thousands of listeners with his spirited off-key version of “take me out to the ballgame” and his cheerful banter with his visiting heroes.
At the end of the interview, Edwards made a plea to anyone listening for donations to help “Jimmy” to purchase a television set for his room. Thanks to the broadcast, “Jimmy” was an instant celebrity and from a single interview managed to help raise over $200,000 that quickly poured in to the hospital to fund research for children’s cancer. Needless to say, “Jimmy” received his television set and the rest of the donations bestowed upon the hospital allowed for the Jimmy Fund to be unwittingly born.
After his brief stint as a celebrity, “Jimmy” completely vanished from the public eye for a half-century. While most presumed him to be deceased due to the high mortality rate of children’s cancers in 1948, it was “Jimmy’s” sister who finally came forward with information confirming that her brother, Einar Gustafson, is the real “Jimmy.” The young baseball fan would reemerge as a healthy and happy grandfather, under his true identity.
Gustafson was born in New Sweden where he continued to maintain a home and raise a family for many years after the interview and the remission of his cancer. After appearing on “Truth or Consequences,” Gustafson returned to his family’s farm in New Sweden. He remained in New Sweden and worked as a long-distance truck driver for many years before moving to Massachusetts, the home of the Dana-Farber Institute and the Jimmy Fund.
Members of Dana-Farber all assumed that young “Jimmy” had long-since passed away from his illness, but in 1998, on the 50 year anniversary of the original radio broadcast, Gustafson returned to the spotlight where he became a well-known ambassador for the Jimmy Fund which had become the first official charity of the Boston Braves, and then in 1953 of the Boston Red Sox. The Boston Red Sox and the Jimmy Fund have been forever intertwined since 1953 and the fund has been a staple of the organization and its fans ever since.
When Gustafson reappeared in 1998 he once again became a national sensation. His story was featured in People Magazine and Sports Illustrated, as well as on newsstands across the country. America was once again enthralled by this story of hope and inspiration. It was the same heartwarming story which along with the work of Dr. Sidney Farber motivated citizens of Boston to erect a two-piece statue dedicated to Dr. Farber and his famous young patient.
The statues were constructed on Jimmy Fund Way in Boston on October, 2013. It was created by Brian Hanlon and portrays Dr. Farber sitting down and speaking with “Jimmy,” who is suited up in his authentic Boston Braves uniform and cap given to him by the team. Long-time Dana-Farber supporter James Vinick commissioned the statues to celebrate Dana-Farber’s rich history, and to preserve the story of how a young patient’s love for baseball helped launched a fundraising movement. Vinick’s son, Jeffrey, and daughter, Beth, were both pediatric patients at Dana-Farber. Jeffrey passed away, but Beth was successfully treated for a brain tumor when she was 12, the same age as Gustafson in the statues.
After his comeback in 1998, Gustafson was heavily involved with the Jimmy Fund. He frequently visited with patients at Dana-Farber and appeared at Jimmy Fund events such as Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, the Boston Marathon, Jimmy Fund Walk and numerous golf tournaments. He even spread the Jimmy Fund’s message of hope all across the country by driving his trailer truck with their logo and slogan? “Because it takes more than courage to beat cancer” emblazoned on the side.
In 1999, Gustafson was honored in his hometown of New Sweden where a Recognition Day was held in his honor. He was also named honorary chairman of the Jimmy Fund. Perhaps more special than any other honor, for Gustafson, was when he had the opportunity to meet his life-long idol, Ted Williams. “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived,” as the people of New England knew him, met with Gustafson during a historic visit to Dana-Farber.
Sadly, Gustafson died of a stroke only two years after shaking the hand of his idol. Gustafson was 65 at the time of his death on Jan. 21, 2001. Despite his passing, Gustafson’s memory continues to provide hope to adults and children with cancer, and inspiration to thousands of Jimmy Fund supporters. It’s thanks to the work and determination of men like Gustafson that we can confidently say we are winning the fight against cancer in this country. The Jimmy Fund alone has raised more than $150 million, while underwriting some of the more significant work on chemotherapy for children and helped reduce the death rate of some childhood cancers particularly leukemia from 90 all the way down to 10 percent.