Thursday, February 16, 2012

Memories of Penn State's 1993 Dance Marathon

Tomorrow, more than 700 Penn State students will take to the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center for the start of a 46-hour dance marathon (THON) to raise money for families battling pediatric cancer.

The full name of the event is The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. It is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world.

It dates to 1973 and, over the past 34 years, THON has raised and donated more than $78 million to The Four Diamonds Fund at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

I was a THON dancer in February 1993 -- just one of thousands who have volunteered for the event over the decades and spent a long weekend trying to stay awake and on their feet. My girlfriend, Jessica Hartshorn, and I were one of the couples representing The Daily Collegian, Penn State's student newspaper.

Last fall, I pulled out an envelope that contained my THON memorabilia. Inside were my plastic ID bracelet, my paper number (182) that I wore on the back of my shirt, some snapshots, the dot-matrix printout of an article I wrote for one of my journalism classes after the event ... and a letter.

The letter was from the Akright family of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Nickolas, age 8, was the young cancer patient who I was partnered with as a pen pal for THON. (Many cancer patients and their families travel to Penn State for THON weekend to support the dancers and enjoy the festivities.)

Nick had typewritten a letter of support to me before the dance marathon, in response to a letter I had sent him earlier.

Here's an excerpt from his 1993 letter:
"I am in second grade & just turned 8, my favorate subjects are math & USA (A gifted class). I enjoy Nintedo and Leggos, maybe we can nineto at Thon? But I will miss the water guns, How about you? I don't know your couple # but I will be there friday night wearing my red Phi Gamma Nu sweatshirt, (they made me a member) and a Penn State pin that another pen pal gave me. Hope we can find each other!

"I live near Hershey Pa, and have a sister, 6, & a cat named Pumkin, a dog named Benji, and some rabbits.

"I am near my second year of treatment for Leukemia So my dad will tell you about it because I don't like to talk about it. ..."
The letter is signed by Nick, Ashley, Bud and Cara Akright.

* * *

My memories of the 1993 THON, which was held in Penn State's White Building, include a whole range of emotions -- joy, exhaustion, wonder, crankiness, pride.

From 7 p.m. Friday night until 7 p.m. Sunday night (it was 48 hours long back then), Jessica and I (right) and 538 other dancers were on our feet constantly.

There were motivational guest speakers; heavenly foot and leg massages; non-stop songs -- including a bunch by a relatively new band called Pearl Jam -- booming over the loudspeakers; a Tetris arcade game; line dances and more.

A former Penn State football player named Craig Fayak, a member of the morale/support team, was constantly and gently reminding me not to lean on the beverage table. No leaning for 48 hours!

After scheduled bathroom breaks (which came only every eight hours), dancers got to come running back into the gymnasium, slide across a powder-covered wrestling mat and get their legs massaged for a few seconds.

The hours piled up.

At one point, I swear I had an out-of-body experience. Exhausted, I imagined myself floating to the ceiling of the gymnasium and looking down upon THON. I was assessing the layout of the building so that I could plot my escape.

In my journalism class article, written a few days after the event, I wrote about the inspiration that ultimately helped me get through the 48 hours:
"It didn't take me long to find Nick that Friday night. He was playing foosball with some of his other friends while he waited to play, of course, the Nintendo video games set up at the end of the gymnasium.

"Standing there, Nick is a perfectly normal 8-year-old. He has on jeans and the red Greek sweatshirt to go with a mop-top of brown hair that probably doesn't get combed too often. Like any kid would he thrust himself into the middle of the games going on around him. ...

"Nick's best friend from the 1992 Dance Marathon, Ronnie Powley, isn't here this time around. Ronnie died from cancer. Nick still doesn't talk about it, his father Bud says."
The Akrights returned to White Building on Sunday afternoon, a few hours after I had essentially fallen asleep standing up while eating breaking. Another excerpt from my article:
"I caught up with Nick at -- where else -- the video games. I gave him a stuffed Nittany Lion doll I bought before the weekend began. Never one for too many words, Nick smiled a little. That was enough."

"Nick's 6-year-old sister, Ashley, was making her own rules with a game of Connect Four up near the stage. I gave her a ribbon for her hair and talked to her for awhile before she was snatched up by some other dancers for photographs.

"Nick's dad, Bud, was helping serve refreshments to the dancers. He smiled and offered me an extra slice of pizza while he tapped his foot to the music."
As that THON came to a close, the dancers gathered in small circles and swayed as "American Pie" played. We did one final line dance ("Move Any Mountain" by The Shamen). It was announced, to thunderous cheers, that THON had raised more than $1 million for the second time in its history.

When it was all done, I walked back to my dorm room in West Halls and slept for about nine hours straight.

* * *

When I opened that manila folder labeled "Dance Marathon" last fall, one of the first things that slipped out was a yellow sheet of paper with Nick's name and address, given to me so that I could write to my THON pen pal.

It's two decades later, and I wondered how Nick was doing -- understanding that, of course, not enough pediatric cancer cases have happy endings.

Nick died in 2004.

I learned this from a January 2008 Daily Collegian article written by Heather Schmelzen. An excerpt:
"Ashley Akright (junior-hotel, restaurant and institutional management) was not a Four Diamonds child, but she lost one close to her. Through time and her own experience, she has found the courage to tell the story.

"Akright's brother, Nickolas, was diagnosed with ALL when he was 7 years old. During Nickolas's treatment, the family's insurance company dropped them.

"'That's really how the Four Diamonds Fund helped us,' Akright said. The Four Diamonds Fund allocates support for families battling pediatric cancer.

"Though Nickolas went through chemotherapy and was cured, he developed bipolar disorder -- linked to chemotherapy -- and committed suicide in 2004 at age 19 as a consequence of the disorder.

"Since Nickolas's death, Akright's family has continued to participate in Thon events.

"She said her fondest memory of Thon was family hour the year after Nickolas died.

"'Singing "Angels Among Us" took on a whole new meaning after Nick passed away,' Akright said.

"Akright, who is dancing in Thon, came to Penn State because of her Thon experience.

"'Since Thon is why I'm here at Penn State, I can't imagine not being involved with it. It's been such a big part of my life for the past 17 years,' Akright said. 'You truly see what courage, honesty, wisdom and strength are when you look at these children who are battling cancer every day of their lives.'"
Recently, I was able to get in touch with Ashley -- who I had chatted with while she played Connect Four all those years ago in White Building.

We talked a little about our THON memories. She said she still goes up to the event in State College every year.

I'm going to send her the original letter that Nick wrote to me in February 1993. I feel like it belongs with the Akright family.

In the meantime, click on Nick's autograph below to learn more about THON at the official website. Learn how you can easily make a donation to support the dancers' goal of raising money for The Four Diamonds Fund.

There's even a way for you to make your donation in memory of Joe Paterno, who was always a firm supporter of THON.

1 comment:

  1. Chris, After reading your words, I am reminded of how proud I am of all the Thon students. especilly my daughter, who continued the fight even after Nick left us.
    Love you all, THON on!