Alec Foege
June 08, 1998 12:00 PM

New England has been on a first-name basis with him for 50 Years. So when beaming doctors and nurses lined up for his autograph at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute on May 21, the white-haired visitor was more than just a kindly 62-year-old trucker named Carl Einar Gustafson. To them he was “Jimmy,” the 12-year-old Maine farm boy and cancer patient whose 1948 appearance on national radio helped launch the Jimmy Fund, which has raised over $150 million for children’s cancer research. His unexpected reemergence as a healthy grandfather of six after decades of anonymity has delighted New Englanders young and old. “Boy, that’s great,” baseball Hall of Famer and Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, 79, told the Boston Globe when he heard the news. “Someday I hope to meet him.”

A few weeks earlier, Jimmy’s reappearance seemed about as likely as seeing the Red Sox, who adopted the Jimmy Fund as their official charity in 1953, win a World Series. There had been stories about the boy and his grown-up identity now and then, but few took them seriously. “Over the years it had almost become like Elvis sightings,” says Mike Andrews, the former Red Sox infielder who is now the Jimmy Fund’s executive director. People simply assumed that Jimmy—a fictitious name created to preserve Gustafson’s privacy as a child—had long ago succumbed to a form of cancer that once claimed up to 85 percent of its young victims. (Today 90 percent survive.) So when Andrews got a letter from a woman last year saying her brother was the original Jimmy, he temporarily put it aside, thinking, “Here we go again.” In fact, it was Gustafson’s sister Phyllis Clauson, 65, who had enclosed the note with her annual contribution to the Jimmy Fund. “Something just clicked,” she says. “I thought these people should know that he’s still alive.” After Andrews rediscovered the letter in a pile of papers on his desk this past January, he had her claim investigated. Fund officials were skeptical until they examined Gustafson’s hospital records and letters written to him years ago by the late cancer specialist Dr. Sidney Farber, who had named him Jimmy. Though once or twice the modest Gustafson had thought about coming forward, he felt no need to be famous again. “I would read in the papers that they had found me someplace,” he says, “and I would smile.”

Considering the illness he survived, Gustafson has plenty to smile about. Born in New Sweden, Maine, the second of three children of potato farmers, he developed terrible stomach cramps one morning in 1947, at age 11, while walking to school. At Central Maine General Hospital in Lewiston, Gustafson was diagnosed with lymphosarcoma (now classified as a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), and he could tell from his father’s reaction just how bad things were. “He looked like a beaten man,” says Gustafson. “I knew something was up, because Dad just didn’t cry.”

Surgery removed the cancerous mass, and in April 1948 doctors sent him on to Children’s Hospital in Boston, where pathologist Farber—who was developing an experimental treatment later known as chemotherapy—took a shine to the boy. “I was like a teacher’s pet,” says Gustafson. “I think he saw that there was potential in me.” Indeed, Farber, who founded the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation in 1947, arranged the boy’s celebrated appearance on the popular radio show Truth or Consequences, as well as a surprise visit from members of his favorite baseball team, the Boston Braves. The broadcast netted more than $230,000 for research and made Jimmy a household name. The rest of Gustafson’s story—that he had moved back to Maine, married his high school sweetheart (who died in 1986) and had three kids—remained private until his sister’s letter came to light.

These days, Gustafson seems in fine fettle, spending most of his time traveling by truck with his second wife, Gloria, 61, a former nurse. On May 22, a half-century to the day after his famed radio spot, he delivered the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park—as well as a laconic explanation for his five decades of silence. As he told one Jimmy Fund official, “What was I going to do? Knock on your door and say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m Jimmy’?”

Alec Foege

Tom Duffy in Boston

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