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Change a Central Element of THON History

on February 21, 2011 2:00 PM

So Penn State's Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon caught a little heat in recent months.

Organizers tightened up the wording on the cans used for public solicitations -- axing the bulky "Interfraternity" and "Panhellenic" references. And some people complained.

Organizers worked to streamline the THON-weekend announcement of student groups' fundraising totals. And some people complained.

If you ask me -- and no one did -- the tweaks undertaken by the 2011 THON leadership feel like common-sense measures. They come across as relatively modest efforts that help position the philanthropy's spotlight where it should be: on the cause.

Plus, THON's own history -- its identity -- is rooted heavily in a year-by-year by evolution. A cruise through the Daily Collegian archives this weekend illustrated just how dramatic that evolution has been.

Consider this:

Back in 1966, according to a Collegian report then, Greek student leaders at Penn State thought a marathon dance would be "too immature for (the Interfraternity Council) and Panhel."

The idea had come up as the leaders tried to identify event options for an upcoming Greek Week. The dance-marathon concept didn't gain enough traction to reach fruition until the next decade, in 1973.

That year, the Collegian archives show, 39 couples registered to dance in the inaugural marathon, held in the HUB. The IFC offered $300 to the couple who tallied the most minutes on the dance floor during the 30-hour event. Seventeen couples finished the marathon, and proceeds -- more than $2,000 -- went to the Sheltered Workshop for Retarded Children in Butler.

A decade later, THON had long since rechanneled its proceeds to support the nascent Four Diamonds Fund, established by the Millard family to benefit pediatric-cancer research and treatment. The event was extended to 48 hours, and in 1983, 355 dancers finished the marathon. Revenue topped $131,000 -- a new high.

Lisa Speicher, then a Penn State senior and a THON dancer, told the Collegian something that rings strikingly familiar even today:

"If we can suffer for 48 hours, you can't even compare that to the suffering (the cancer-affected) kids go through in their lifetime," she said that year.

A few years later, THON '87 saw a complement of 472 dancers and another new twist: A researcher from the Johns Hopkins medical school made use of the event to study the effects of sleep deprivation on the mind, the Collegian reported at the time. Some dancers, the researcher found, saw hallucinations.

The fundraising total that year: nearly $300,000.

Fast-forward six more years, and the tally made another dramatic jump -- to more than $1.3 million. By that year -- 1993 -- THON's formal name included  "Panhellenic" in its title. (In prior years, it had been known only as the Penn State IFC Dance Marathon.)

Also in '93, M.C. Hammer's "Too Legit To Quit" made an appearance on the playlist, according to a Collegian report.

In 2003, THON was in the third facility of its history (Rec Hall -- after the HUB and the White Building). Fundraising that year hit $3.6 million, just $12,000 shy of the prior year's total. The economy then, the overall chairman told the Collegian, "didn't make it easy."

Here we are this year, in the midst of another less-than-rosy economy. And THON not only maintained its reported fundraising level -- it knocked the number out of the park for 2011. The record, $9.56 million total announced at the Jordan Center on Sunday is some 22 percent higher than the 2010 number.

By that most basic of basic measures, evolution seems to be serving THON rather productively.

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