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Their dad was the ‘Jimmy’ of Jimmy Fund fame, a man in a league of his own

The iconic New England charity turns 75 this year

Lynn MacLeod displayed a collection of memories about her father, Einar Gustafson, at home in Buzzards Bay. Gustafson, was the the original Jimmy of the Jimmy Fund which is celebrating its 75th anniversary.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

BUZZARDS BAY — He is the very image of summertime baseball in New England.

The impossibly cute little boy — eyes squarely on the ball, bat steady above his shoulder — ready for whatever comes next.

The next pitch.

The next challenge.

Whatever nasty curveballs life might throw at him.

His likeness is marbled into the DNA of Fenway Park as surely as the Fenway Frank, the Green Monster, and the old-timers’ well-worn stories about that magical summer of 1967.

He is the man who put the Jimmy in the Jimmy Fund.

He’s the kid who battled the cruelty of childhood cancer and — thanks to those the medical wizards at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute — defied long and frightening medical odds.

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Jimmy, the symbol of the Jimmy Fund, is marking an anniversary this year — 75 years at the old, beloved ballyard on Lansdowne Street.

The real name of the person who inspired him was Carl Einar Gustafson.

Gustafson is the man who once was a 12-year-old from New Sweden, Maine. He grew up on a farm, walked to school, and then — one fateful day — began experiencing abdominal distress.

“And there were small-town doctors up there so he went to a hospital in Lewiston and had his appendix out, but it wasn’t his appendix,” his daughter, Lynn MacLeod, told me the other day as she sat here next to her sister, Lisa Patti.

They sent him for treatment in Boston.

“Now, this was before the highway. There was no I-95. Anyway, they got themselves down there. And he got under Dr. Farber’s care, when he was just a young doctor.”

The doctor who would become a legend.

Sidney Farber treated his young patient, diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and saw something special in the little boy.

“He was chosen by Dr. Sidney Farber because he was a good-looking boy,” Lynn MacLeod said.

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And so a New England legend was cemented.

And a doctor-patient relationship was established.

They kept in touch with each other until Gustafson grew into a young man.

“Dad hit it off with the doctor,” Lisa Patti said. “He was told that he probably wouldn’t have any biological children because of the treatment. And that if he did live, he probably wouldn’t reach 50.”

But Carl Einar Gustafson did live.

He lived until 2001, dying at the age of 65.

Lisa Patti, left, and her sister Lynn MacLeod posed for a portrait at MacLeod’s home in Buzzards Bay.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

He would always remember that fateful broadcast from his hospital room on May 22, 1948, when he was selected to speak on Ralph Edwards’s national radio program called “Truth or Consequences.”

During that broadcast, Edwards spoke to the young cancer patient from his Hollywood studio as the boy’s favorite Boston Braves baseball players surprised him with a visit to his hospital room. They called him Jimmy to protect his privacy.

At the show’s conclusion, viewers were asked to make donations, so Jimmy could get his own TV set to watch his beloved Braves play. The response was overwhelming.

More than $200,000 was collected.

And the Jimmy Fund was born.

Jimmy. The little kid that New England could never forget.

As his youth faded into adulthood, he began to work in construction, eventually building and remodeling homes across Cape Cod.

And he was forever shaped by what happened to him as a kid.

“I think that he felt he was very lucky,” MacLeod said. “He was very humble. And he was very hard-working. And that came from his parents and growing up on a farm and having responsibility.”

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He would grow into the kind of husband who would greet his wife in the morning with coffee in bed.

“When he was out in the kitchen preparing the coffee, he would be coughing,” Lynn MacLeod said. “He tried to kick the (cigarette) habit and it worked for like a week. We couldn’t believe it. But it was just a habit.

“You’re in a truck. What are you going to do? You’re going to smoke. You go into a restaurant and everybody’s smoking. He never could kick it.”

Lynn MacLeod displays a collection of memories regarding her father, Einar Gustafson, at home in Buzzards Bay.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

She remembers her father as the tall and lean guy who took pride in his appearance. Nice pair of khakis. Button-down shirt. The kind of guy who would take off his hat before entering a building.

And she remembers the pride she felt walking into Fenway Park with the man who was forever Jimmy.

“Parents of the kids who were sick wanted to shake his hand,” she said. “I mean it was thrilling. When they announced him, oh my God, the crowd went crazy.”

He made public service announcements.

He appeared on doughnut shop calendars.

A national magazine ran a little story about him.

He never really got over the death of his wife in 1986 at age 50.

“The only highlights then were our children,” Lynn said. “He was a grandfather.

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And, of course, the Jimmy Fund.”

“I think dad’s legacy is to show hope,” Lisa Patti said. “That even though you’re diagnosed with cancer, there is hope that you can live. And that’s what he wanted to show people.

“He would make it a point to be at any function that they asked him to attend,” she said. “And it would also raise more money because more people would come. And he knew how important that was. He wanted to help out any way he could.”

Larry Lucchino, the Jimmy Fund chairman and a trustee of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, called the Red Sox’ relationship with the Jimmy Fund the envy of the professional sports world.

“The importance of that should be clear to everyone,” said Lucchino. “The vitality and the robustness of the cancer treatment facility matters to the quality of life of the region. We’re very lucky that the Jimmy Fund and the Red Sox have been merged.

“This is a special relationship.”

Lynn MacLeod recalled attending the Jimmy Fund walk with her father one year when a young man approached with his 4-year-old son.

“And the little boy was bald,” she recalled. “And I’m choking up already. And I said, ‘What’s his name?’ Connor. Well, that’s my son’s name. I had to turn away. And there’s dad. He could do it. He could keep his composure.

“I don’t know how he did it. But he did. He was just a natural.”

The little kid they called Jimmy, it turns out, was a Hall of Famer in a league of his own.

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A Hall of Famer who now has touched so many lives. Lives like that of Zach Galvin, who was born 52 years ago in Dover, where he grew up. For the last 20 years, he has been the vice principal of Natick High School.

When he was interviewing for a teaching job there, he learned of his dire diagnosis: Stage 4 Hodgkin Disease.

“I had a tumor next to my heart that had spread into the lymph nodes,” he said.

He received chemotherapy treatments every other Friday for six months followed by radiation treatments to his chest and heart five days a week for six weeks — treatment that was completed in early 1997.

“One day during treatment I realized that I had ended up at the Jimmy Fund Clinic,” he said. “I saw posters for the Jimmy Fund walk. When I got back on the elevator, I realized I didn’t have much to complain about. And in the fall of 1997, I started to walk for the Jimmy Fund.”

That first year Galvin raised about $2,500 with a simple word-of-mouth fund-raising campaign.

The next year, he started a team he dubbed Zach’s Pack. Over the last 26 years, that effort has raised just $112,000 short of $1 million.

“I’m going to double that this year to get to that million,” he said. “My life has been prolonged through the Dana Farber research. It has kept me going on this walk.”


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.