Einar Gustafson was a 12-year-old cancer patient who launched the Jimmy Fund in 1948 and then quietly succumbed to the disease.
Or so most people thought.
Einar had been at the heart of a publicity stunt to raise money for cancer research. His doctor, pioneering cancer researcher Sidney Farber, had insisted he be called ‘Jimmy’ to protect his privacy. The publicity stunt was so successful the fund was named after “Jimmy.” And Dr. Farber emerged as a leader in the drive for government funding of cancer research.
Einar Gustafson returned home to New Sweden, Maine, and lived a full and vigorous life. At the age of 63, he emerged as the original Jimmy and had a memorable visit with Ted Williams, the godfather of the Jimmy Fund.
The Jimmy Fund
He was born Carl Einar Gustafson Aug. 18, 1935 on a New Sweden potato farm. At age 12 he felt a pain in his abdomen while walking to school. He had non-Hodgkins lymphoma of the small bowel and underwent surgery in Caribou. Then he had another surgery in Lewiston.
His doctor referred him to Children’s Hospital in Boston, where cure rates maybe reached 30 percent. There, Einar’s doctor, Sidney Farber, had begun raising money for cancer research with a group of charitable show business people called the Variety Club.
On May 22, 1948, radio star Ralph Edwards was to ask for donations on a broadcast of his radio show, Truth or Consequences, from Children’s Hospital.
For the coast-to-coast broadcast, Farber selected Einar, a cute, polite Boston Braves fan who longed to watch games on television.
During the broadcast from “Jimmy’s” bedside, Boston Braves players paid him a surprise visit. They marched into his room with hats, bats and a small Braves uniform. Edwards announced “Jimmy” would get a TV set if they raised $20,000. Before the Braves left Children’s Hospital, people had showed up at the door with dollars, quarters and dimes for Jimmy.
Dr. Farber suggested they name the fund drive the Jimmy Fund.
Within a year the Jimmy Fund raised $231,485.51, “Jimmy” got his television and the Braves won the pennant.
When the Braves left for Milwaukee in 1953, the Red Sox adopted the Jimmy Fund and slugger Ted Williams became its most fervent advocate. His brother Danny had died from leukemia at age 39, and Williams raised millions for the charity.
“Back in the 1950s, Dr. Farber told me, `Ted, we’re gonna find a way to save these kids’,” remembered Williams.
Sidney Farber was a Jewish doctor from Buffalo, N.Y. He had graduated from SUNY Buffalo in 1923, a time when Jewish students often couldn’t get into U.S. medical schools. So Farber went to Germany, where he did so well as a first-year student he qualified to enter Harvard Medical School. As the first pathologist at Children’s Hospital, he is considered the father of pediatric pathology as well as the father of modern chemotherapy.
Dr. Farber realized breakthroughs in the treatment of disease had to be promoted. He began advocating for cancer research funding, often appearing before Congress as a leader in the drive for government funding for cancer research.
That broadcast with “Jimmy” at Children’s Hospital had been a turning point in the history of cancer treatment, bringing it into the glare of publicity. No longer was it a silent shame.
The Real Jimmy
Dr. Farber kept in touch with Einar Gustafson until he died of a heart attack in his office at age 69 in 1973. Almost everyone else assumed Jimmy had succumbed to the disease.
In 1997, Einar Gustafson’s sister Phyllis Clauson of Chelmsford, Mass., wrote to the Jimmy Fund to tell them her brother was still alive.
Jimmy Fund Director Mike Andrews dismissed the letter. They’d had a lot like it – like Elvis sightings, said Andrews, a former Red Sox second baseman.
Karen Cummings, a Jimmy Fund fund-raiser, took the letter seriously. She tried to find Einar. One day her phone rang.
“This is Jimmy,” he said. “Heard you were lookin’ for me.”
A Most Wonderful Man
Einar had returned to Boston regularly to get chemotherapy as a boy. He grew to 6’5″, graduated from Caribou High School, drove trucks, married his high school sweetheart and had three daughters. Eventually he moved to Buzzards Bay and started a building company. His wife died in 1986, and he remarried. When he emerged as the original Jimmy, he was running a trucking business out of New Sweden
He explained why he had kept his identity quiet: “We were taught when we were kids you didn’t talk about those things. You didn’t talk about sickness.”
Einar became a spokesman for the Jimmy Fund. He drove a truck emblazoned with the charity’s logo and slogan: “Because it takes more than courage to beat cancer.” He threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox-Yankee game at Fenway in 1998. In 1999, Maine held a Recognition Day for him, and he was named honorary chairman of the Jimmy Fund.
“He turned out to be the most wonderful man,” said Andrews. “If we had tried to create a Jimmy, we couldn’t have done better. And he was just thrilled to be part of it.”
Jimmy and Ted
In 1999, Ted Williams came to Boston for an All-Star event and he toured the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Williams said the Jimmy Fund was the softest spot in his heart about the New England people.
He heard “Jimmy” was at the clinic, too. “Where’s this Jimmy?” Williams yelled. “I want to meet this Jimmy guy!”
The two men sat in rocking chairs and chatted.
“This is the biggest thrill of my trip, right here,” Williams said.
Einar Gustafson died of a stroke on Jan. 21, 2001, at his home in Caribou. Ted Williams died a year and a half later.
Image: Einar Gustafson with TV By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64477481. Einar Gustafson in Braves uniform By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64477546. Ted Williams statue By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK – Ted Williams, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64154662. This story was updated in 2021.