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September 16, 2008
Jimmy Fund remembers Irving Shapiro, 'ambassador' for the cause

Iriving Shapiro in a golf cart

Although he needed a lift at the 2007 Jimmy Fund Classic, Shapiro was a staple at golf tournaments benefiting the charity into his 90s. (Lisa Cohen photo)

The story of the Jimmy Fund's formation 60 years ago reads like a Hollywood script, with everything from a sick youngster in a hospital bed to a doctor toiling in a tiny laboratory to save him.

On September 10, 2008, Dana-Farber lost one of the key players involved with those early days — and the tremendous growth it has since experienced — when Irving Shapiro passed away at age 96.

Shapiro, a Newton resident, was one of the original founders and a past president of the Variety Children's Charity of New England (formerly known as the Variety Club of New England). Back in the late 1940s, this volunteer organization comprised of theater owners and officials stepped up to support the pioneering cancer research of Dana-Farber founder Sidney Farber, MD.

Working in a basement lab at Children's Hospital Boston, Farber needed funding for his studies into pediatric leukemia — then an almost universally fatal disease.

Using its entertainment contacts, the Variety Club arranged for a live nationwide radio broadcast of a May 22, 1948, meeting between members of the Boston Braves baseball team and a 12-year-old patient of Farber's known only as "Jimmy" to protect his privacy. Listeners were encouraged to make gifts on the boy's behalf, and responded immediately by bringing coins and dollar bills to the hospital's main desk.

More money poured in by mail, and by summer's end $231,485.51 had been raised and the Jimmy Fund was born.

Iriving Shapiro and his Variety Club colleagues

Irving Shapiro (far left, upper row) and his Variety Club colleagues were instrumental in the Jimmy Fund's 1948 formation. (Jimmy Fund photo)

The next year, Shapiro and his cohorts started up the Jimmy Fund/Variety Children's Charity Theatre Collections Program, the "passing of the can" for Dana-Farber that continues to this day as an annual rite of summer for New England moviegoers.

And in the decades to come, as the Institute grew and cure rates for pediatric and adult cancers rose dramatically, Shapiro stayed involved. He helped organize the Variety Club Jimmy Fund Golf Tournament, which was one of the first golf events to support the Jimmy Fund and met with the same success the affable, warm-hearted Shapiro enjoyed professionally as head of both a catering company and a firm that sold candy to movie theaters.

"The Variety Club tournament has taken place for 55 years — the longest-running tournament we have," says Nancy Rowe, director of Jimmy Fund Golf. "Irving was a true ambassador for the cause; he had great vision to realize that golf could be a way to raise money for cancer research, and because of the early dedication of people like him we were able to establish the official Jimmy Fund Golf program in 1983."

In 2003, Shapiro was given the Ken Coleman Extra Mile Award, bestowed annually to individuals who have "gone above and beyond the call of duty by giving freely of their time and energy to support the Jimmy Fund."

He was still golfing himself at age 90, and continued to be a welcome presence at Dana-Farber events when not spending time with a close-knit family that included his wife, Charlotte, four daughters, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

"Irving was very outgoing with a tremendously positive attitude," says Jimmy Fund Director Suzanne Fountain, who was among the Dana-Farber staff who attended Shapiro's funeral on September 12. "His life was about helping people, whether it was through the Jimmy Fund or other charities the Variety Club supported. Irving was always there for you and we were fortunate to know him."

The Variety Club of New England honored Shapiro with a tribute dinner several years ago. A large crystal heart, the Variety International symbol, was inscribed: "To Irving with love: We couldn't find a heart as big as yours."

Deborah Cutler, a longtime Variety Board of Directors member, recalled that when the Variety Club took underprivileged children to the movies, the circus, and to a winter holiday party, Irving always tried to make the day more memorable. Once he bought hot dogs, cotton candy, and soda for 75 kids. "He wanted the day to be special, but the real special treat was Irving himself," says Cutler.

"Irving Shapiro and my father, John J. Nerich Jr., were very instrumental insuring that Variety's Children and the children of the Jimmy Fund were always foremost in their mind," says Variety Children's Charity President Lisa Nerich. "The two of them shared a special bond, for the love of the children. They did anything and everything to raise money for the Jimmy Fund. We will always remember Irving as a caring and compassionate gentleman."

— Saul Wisnia
saul_wisnia@dfci.harvard.edu