Paying His Debt To The Divinity John Canuso Builds Houses For A Living. Over The Last 17 Years, He's Also Built A Remarkable Record Of Giving To Children's Hospital. It Was His Way Of Saying Thank You For His Daughter's Life.

Posted: December 13, 1991

John Canuso made a deal with God.

His 9-year-old daughter, Babe, had just been diagnosed with leukemia, and as he knelt at her bed, he swore: "You save my kid, I'll dedicate my life."

God upheld His end, in spades.

Babe is now 26, married and the mother of a year-old boy - a child she thought she'd never have, after all the radiation and chemotherapy.

John Canuso came through, too.

In 1974, the year Babe fell ill, he reached into his own pocket to renovate and furnish a run-down West Philadelphia home that became the first Ronald McDonald House, a place where families could stay while their youngsters were being treated for cancer at nearby Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. ''Knowing it can be done," he said of that first effort, "is just fuel."

Soon afterward, Canuso, a South Jersey builder, started his own foundation and raffled off houses and hosted art auctions and dinners. In 17 years, with the help of his family and fellow builders, he raised a total of $700,000 for leukemia research at Children's.

As an expression of thanks, the hospital last week dedicated the new Canuso Foundation Leukemia Biology Research Laboratory. Friends and relatives - from his octogenarian parents to his toddling grandson - gathered in the ninth- floor lab and surrounding hallways for the ceremony.

"It's more than just the money," said Audrey Evans, the former head of oncology at Children's and one of the doctors who had treated Babe. "It's knowing we always had John. And the knowledge of having John enabled us to dare to do things."

At the urging of Canuso's wife, Joan, much of the money he raised has been used not for bricks and mortar, but for preliminary research. That, in turn, has often led to large federal or foundation grants. "That kind of support is priceless," said Milton Donaldson, head of oncology at Cooper Hospital - University Medical Center in Camden, an institution that has also received ''generous support" from the Canuso Foundation. Donaldson, who was a physician at Children's when Babe was ill, is honorary godfather of her baby.

Each year, Children's treats about 250 youngsters with some form of cancer. The survival rate for leukemia now approaches 70 percent. But when Babe Canuso was diagnosed, the outlook was not nearly as hopeful. Although more sophisticated treatments were being introduced, doctors had little idea of their long-term success. Until then, the survival rate had been a mere 10 percent.

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John Canuso is the son of a bridge builder, a former South Philly kid and Villanova engineering graduate who wanted to build houses. Now 50, he has constructed more than 6,000 homes in South Jersey, among them his signature development, Main Street in Voorhees.

But Canuso was only 33, just coming into his own professionally, when the phone rang in his Berlin office around 4 on a Friday afternoon, March 4, 1974.

"I didn't even know Babe had a doctor's appointment," he said. "I get a phone call from a doctor who tells me my kid has leukemia. I hated hearing that over the phone. I didn't even know what it was. It seemed like a year to drive from Berlin to Children's Hospital. I cried the whole way. I was so alone."

Babe, the third of seven Canuso children, remembers sitting in a waiting room - nobody had told her anything yet - and seeing her father, frantic, rushing into the hospital. That same night, doctors began the horribly painful process of bone marrow tests and spinal taps, followed quickly by chemotherapy and radiation.

Canuso couldn't sit around the hospital, holding his daughter's hand through it all. "I'm not a test tube kind of guy," he said. He didn't want to learn about the disease. All he wanted was to do something to help. Anything.

"He's a real Italian father figure," said Evans. "And fathers fix things. Whatever it is, fathers fix it. He talked about where could he take her in the world. And there was nothing he could do."

It was Evans who had dreamed up the concept of a rooming house for families who come for treatment from far away and need a place to stay. McDonald's donated the money to buy the property. Then came the job for Canuso.

"John, we need a house," Evans told him and took him to West Philadelphia to tour the proposed site.

"It was an old frat house, occupied by a bunch of hippies and filled with rats," said Canuso. Evans remembers that it reeked of pot.

Canuso made her and other doctors promise they wouldn't return until he invited them. He had the house fumigated, and then got down to work. "I said, 'Thank you, Lord. I'm glad you asked me to do something in my profession,' " he recalled. "I had to do that. It consumed me."

He, along with friends and colleagues, worked night and day. They supplied all the materials and labor themselves, and finished the mammoth job in just six weeks.

The night before the dedication ceremony, he "practically blindfolded us," said Evans, before bringing the doctors in the back door. All the lights in the house were off. Then he let them see.

The nine-room house had been meticulously renovated. It had a baby grand

piano. A grandfather's clock. Even cornflakes in the pantry. Evans was stunned: "We just needed a place for people to sleep, a sort of unisex YMCA. He provided a home."

"Just to see their reactions that night was so important, it made it all

worthwhile," said Canuso. "The next day didn't mean anything."

John Canuso is a man who admires Walt Disney - his daughter Babe jokes that he "thinks he is Walt Disney." Canuso even tried to recreate parts of Disney World with his own Main Street development.

Over the years, his foundation's contributions have ebbed and flowed with the economy, but Canuso has never stopped fulfilling his end of the bargain.

He hands out "gotta wanna" buttons to everyone he knows, according to Babe.

"When he commits to something, it's total," said his wife, Joan, "and he's brought all of us along with him."

Canuso is a big family man. At Main Street, he dresses up as Santa the first Saturday of the season - although he couldn't do it this year because his youngest daughter is just 5 and the rest of the family was afraid she'd recognize him.

He wants everyone over at the house in Haddonfield on Christmas Eve to spend the night; on Christmas morning, he insists that they walk downstairs one by one so he can videotape them. He puts on a Santa's cap and passes out the presents.

"He's like the inspiration man," said Babe. "He makes our family work."

And wants to make others' work.

Anne Denenberg, his secretary for 20 years, recalls a phone call last year

from a young woman whose nephew in North Carolina had leukemia. "She wanted to know if he should be brought up here for treatment. In the conversation, she dissolved into tears. It was the first Christmas the entire family could not be together."

Canuso rented a bus, hired a driver, and told her to gather her entire family. At 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the bus left with all the kids, the aunts, the uncles, the grandparents. "They drove all through the night and the family spent Christmas with the nephew in the hospital," said Denenberg. ''John was working quietly and without fanfare. He could not conceive of this family not being together on Christmas.

"He feels he has so much, it makes him feel better to give."

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