In 1957, Arab American actor and comedian Danny Thomas asked a man from Indianapolis to lead the effort to establish a national children’s hospital that would treat kids with cancer and other diseases for free. By the time he had finished, Michael Tamer raised $43 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He had become one of the greatest fundraisers in the United States.
Tamer was born in Appalachia, Virginia, in 1904, but he moved to Indianapolis as a young man in the 1920s. In 1926, his marriage at St. Francis DeSales Church to another Syrian American, Marie Kurker, was featured in the Indianapolis News society pages. He became active in the Arab American social scene as he made his living as a salesman. Over his career, he would also own a lamp store, the Red Key Tavern and other bars, and a candy shop. Such work paid the bills, but Mike Tamer’s passion was for philanthropy, not business.
In the 1930s, he became leader of the Syrian So-Fra (Sorority-Fraternity) Club, which brought Arab Americans together not only for socializing but also to raise money for charitable causes. Tamer quickly developed a reputation as someone who was good at getting things done. In 1939, he served as chair of the twentieth anniversary of Indianapolis’ Syrian American Brotherhood.
During World War II, Tamer led Arab Indianapolis’ effort to buy war bonds and support Indianapolis’ Arab American men and women in uniform. The various Syrian clubs that had been holding dances and raising money for charity came together at this time to form the Associated Syrian Lebanon Club of Indianapolis. Tamer, whose brother Mitchell died in the war, served as president.
In 1944, he was also elected president of the Syrian American Brotherhood. During the war years, its clubhouse on Riverside Park became a venue for war bonds sales. Visitors were offered free buffets, dancing, and singing, and then expected to generously support the war effort. At one event alone, he sold $210,000 in bonds. Members of the military, especially from Fort Benjamin Harrison and Camp Atterbury, were also feted during New Year’s and other celebrations at the clubhouse.
Mike Tamer gained a national reputation as a nonprofit leader and a fundraiser, and in 1955, he was elected president of the National Association of Federations of Syrian Lebanese Clubs during a meeting at French Lick. One of his first official duties was leading 325 members of the association as they left for a month-long convention in Syria and Lebanon. During his time in Syria, Prime Minister Sabri al-Assaly and Foreign Affairs Minister Khaled al-Azm awarded him Syria’s medal of merit.
Two years later, Danny Thomas tapped Michael Tamer to become national executive director of the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), the philanthropic organization that funded St. Jude Children’s Hospital, which broke ground in 1958. Tamer set up a modest office at 611 Massachusetts Avenue. At first, he worked for free. Aided by LaVonne Rashid, Tamer hit the road, helping ten regional directors establish 142 chapters in 35 states. It was the largest Arab American philanthropic organization of its time. Tamer and Rashid became paid employees of ALSAC and its modest office remained in Indianapolis until 1975, the year after Tamer’s death.
Even then, his name lived on at St. Jude Hospital in Memphis, where there is a building named after him and Rashid. There is also the Michael F. Tamer Chair of Biomedical Research on the St. Jude Hospital faculty. These are fitting tributes to the person about whom Danny Thomas once said, “I must thank God that along came Mike Tamer, because without his leadership, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital would have been just a dream.”
Research assistance for this post was provided by IUPUI student researchers Dana Dobbins and Jamee West.