07/25/2013 01:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Very Personal Thank You to President George H. W. Bush


American presidents have many jobs. They govern. They lead. They inspire. And if we're lucky, they continue to set an example even after they've left the White House. Jimmy Carter's steadfast humanitarianism has been on exhibit for more than three decades; and the Clinton Foundation has become a global force of good.

Last week, our 41st president -- George H.W. Bush -- did something so inspiring, and very touching: He shaved his head.

Learning that the two-year-old son of one of his Secret Service agents, a child named Patrick, had developed leukemia and was losing his hair due to his medical treatments, President Bush joined several other members of his security detail in taking a razor to his own scalp, as a show of solidarity for the little boy. Mr. Bush is no stranger to the ravages of childhood disease: he and his wife Barbara lost a daughter to leukemia sixty years ago. She was four years old.

At St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, I have had the honor of meeting thousands of children like Patrick, and I can tell you that among their many attributes -- their courage, their optimism, their strength -- their baldness is a thing of beauty. That's because it tells us that the fierceness of their treatments, strong enough to kill hair cells, is also hard at work on the cancer. That gives us hope.

Over the years, head-shaving has become something of a ritual for parents of St. Jude children. One three-year-old girl, Arianna, cried when her hair began to fall out, because she felt she didn't "look pretty anymore."

"So one night after Arianna went to bed," says her mom, Leticia, "I shaved my head. And the next morning Arianna walked down the stairs and looked at me like she'd seen a ghost. I said, 'What's the matter?'"

"You don't have any hair," Arianna said.

"Well, now I'm beautiful like you," Leticia responded.

"You know," said Arianna, "you're the best mom ever."

And then there was Tyler from Kentucky, whose entire eighth-grade class -- more than 200 boys and girls -- shaved or cut their hair in support of their ailing classmate. When Tyler saw the photo they sent, he was not only happy -- he was proud.

As for the children themselves, many of them wear their baldness like a badge. I remember one child who, in the midst of her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, left the hospital for a few days to do what she loved best: dance in a recital. And she did it with no hair. And I've seen more than a few kids roaming the halls of St. Jude in their favorite t-shirt, emblazoned with the words, "Bald Kids Rock!"

And so to President Bush, on behalf of the children and families of St. Jude -- and on behalf of my dad, who founded the hospital 51 years ago -- I thank you from the bottom of my heart. A long time ago you spoke about our nation's common humanity being like "a thousand points of light." This week, your light is blazing bright.