With “Jumping Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones rocking the HUB Ballroom, 39 couples took to the dance floor at 6:00 p.m., Friday, Feb. 2, 1973, launching what was to become the most successful student-run philanthropy in the country.
In 1973, when Interfraternity Council President Bill Lear ’73 proposed a 30-hour dance marathon to raise money for a worthwhile cause, no one could have imagined how successful the idea would be, least of all Lear. Lear told his neighbor who was associated with the Butler County Association for Retarded Children—the first charitable recipient of Thon proceeds—to expect as little as $20 from the event. But when the clock ran down on the first Dance Marathon, more than $2,000 had been raised.
When Dance Marathon ended, Cris Guenter ’76 and Sam Walker ’75 had danced the longest and raised the most money and won a $300 prize. Guenter, now a professor of art education at the California State University, Chico, remembers the experience fondly.
“In 1973, I was a freshman and Sam was a sophomore. We didn’t know each other well but the Arts and Architecture Interest House at Leete Hall entered us in the competition,” said Guenter. “I swam the mile on the swim team, and Sam was a distance runner on the cross country team. They must have thought we stood a chance of lasting through the 30-hour competition.”
Back then, dancers didn’t can, solicit door-to-door, or get corporate sponsorships. Most of the money during early Dance Marathons was from students who donated money to support their favorite teams. For $1, students could vote for their favorite dance team. “Every dollar,” says Lear, “was equal to one vote.”
Lear says the idea of for Penn State’s Dance Marathon came from an effort by IFC to get back to traditions. “There had been a tradition of having dance marathons back in the ’20s and ’30s,” said Lear. “We were trying to celebrate traditions and do positive things to promote Greek life.”
In keeping with the grueling dance marathons of the depression-era ’20s and ’30s, Penn State’s early marathon contestants were docked points for going to the bathroom and were scored on how long they could continue dancing. On Monday, Feb. 5, The Daily Collegian reported that the 17 couples who danced for the entire 30-hour marathon “averaged five and a half minutes of break time.” Winners Guenter and Walker took a total of 77 seconds in breaks during the 30-hour event.
The Dance Marathon experience changed Guenter and Walker. “When that first Dance Marathon ended and the crowd gathered around the five or seven couples who finished, Sam and I thought we were in third place,” said Guenter. “Then the crowd picked us up and passed us overhead by hand to the stage. We were just stunned. We could hardly say anything. We were so tired.”
Mikki (Piras) Sager ’73 and Steve Draper ’76, who placed third in the 1973 Dance Marathon, were training for whitewater canoe racing at the time and entered in the hopes of winning prize money to cover their racing expenses. “The $25 we each won didn’t cover a lot of expenses,” said Sager, “but we had a good time and we ended up with some good stories to tell our respective kids.”
Sager and Draper, who wouldn’t drink coffee or any liquids during the contest unless absolutely necessary in order to avoid bathroom breaks, “were probably pretty dehydrated and not functioning very well toward the end,” said Sager. The couple would later go on to make the U.S. Whitewater Team and compete in the World Championships in Muota, Switzerland, and again in Skopje, Yugoslavia, where they placed third in 1975, earning a bronze medal. “I like to think the Dance Marathon gave us some experience in ‘pushing through the pain,’” said Sager.
Over the next several years, the Dance Marathon grew longer to 48 hours and featured more dancers raising a steadily growing amount for the charity beneficiary. In 1974, the Dance Marathon raised $10,825 for the American Heart Association; in 1975, $10,825 for the Easter Seals Society; and in 1976, $15,282 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The 1976 dance marathon also saw the innovation of the first marathon theme, “Dance for Those Who Can’t.” Subsequent themes would include “Miracles in Motion,” “One Step Closer,” and “…With All Your Heart.”
Then in 1977, with 62 couples participating in the fifth annual Dance Marathon, the proceeds of more than $28,000 were directed to a fledgling charity at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center called The Four Diamonds Fund. Founded just one year before the first Dance Marathon, The Four Diamonds Fund helped children diagnosed with cancer and their families. In 1978, this charity became the permanent beneficiary of Penn State’s Dance Marathon.
The Dance Marathon tradition grew, too, over the subsequent years. In 1979, having outgrown the HUB Ballroom, the marathon moved to White Building. In 1987, with 472 dancers participating, Dance Marathon was officially christened Thon. By 1999, Thon had outgrown the White Building and moved to Rec Hall. Thon moved again in 2007, to its current location, the Bryce Jordan Center.
As the Dance Marathon grew, so did the philanthropic milestones. In 1983, Dance Marathon raised $131,000, its first six-figure total. By 1992, Thon broke the $1 million mark. In 1998, the $2 million mark. Thon 2000 topped the $3 million mark. Last year’s Thon raised more than $6.6 million for The Four Diamonds Fund.
“As years passed, it went from thousands of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars,” says Lear. “But we never knew in 1973 that we were starting a tradition. I’m just so happy that things have continued. People come up to me and say, ‘hey you started all this.’ But the people who came after me, they’re the ones who kept the momentum going.”
Both of Lear’s children, Jonathan Lear ’03 and Lindsay Lear ’04, participated as volunteers and fundraisers for Thon. As a result, Lear has returned for dance marathons on a few occasions. “I’ve been to marathons in the past where representatives from different universities have come and they’ve seen our dance marathon and been so impressed that they’ve taken the idea back to their campuses. But this tradition started at Penn State,” said Lear.
Thon is now acknowledged as the largest student-run philanthropy in the nation. It has been featured on NBC’s Today Show and recognized with the first award ever given by the Association of Fund-Raising Professionals for outstanding youth philanthropy. Through Thon, Penn State’s students and alumni have raised more than $52 million to fight pediatric cancer, and the marathon has become a source of pride for Penn Staters everywhere.
On Friday evening, Feb. 20, 2009, the 37th annual Thon will begin. More than 700 dancers, 2,000 student leaders and organizers, and local and national corporate partners will participate in the 46-hour, no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon. Proceeds from the event form the largest single annual donation to The Four Diamonds Fund and also support the group’s six-year, $10 million pledge for construction of a new Pediatric Cancer Pavilion at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
To learn more about Thon or to make a contribution, visit www.Thon.org. For more information about The Four Diamonds Fund, visit www.hmc.psu.edu/fourdiamonds.