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His Tragic 1978 Death Helped Give Life to Others Through THON

by on February 08, 2018 5:00 AM

It must have been a happy group of seven Penn State students who piled into a station wagon on the afternoon of March 22, 1978.

Just a couple of weeks before, these students had helped lead the Intrafraternity Council Dance Marathon (now known as THON) to its highest fundraising total in the event’s six-year history — $52,818. And now they were headed to a dinner at Hershey Medical Center where they would be congratulated for providing that money to the Four Diamonds Fund and its fight against childhood cancer.

But the Penn Staters never reached Hershey, and their evening of anticipated celebration became a time of mourning. About 15 miles northwest of Harrisburg, a 29-year-old woman from western Pennsylvania swerved across several lanes of Route 322 and hit their vehicle head-on.  

Perhaps the woman had planned to commit suicide; perhaps she fainted or somehow became disoriented. Regardless of motive or circumstance, the accident took her life, injured six of the students and claimed the life of the seventh — Kevin A. Steinberg, a senior from the Philadelphia suburbs.     

James Adisey, now a medical doctor in Greensburg, was one of Steinberg’s Kappa Delta Rho fraternity brothers and he was driving the station wagon when the horrific accident occurred.

“A car came into my lane and came right at us, head-on,” he recalls. “I couldn’t turn left because of the rest of the oncoming traffic, and there was really almost no berm on the right (due to the presence of the Susquehanna River).”

SHOCKING NEWS

News of the tragedy produced an emotional shock on the University Park campus. It was hard for students to grasp the death of a 20-year-old peer, especially one engaged in such a worthy project. And the fact that it was Kevin Steinberg, IFC’s vice president with a magnetic personality, added to the devastation. An estimated 200 cars traveled from State College to Philly for Kevin’s funeral three days later.

“It was crushing to a lot of people,” says Adisey as he recalls the death of his friend. “What a wonderful guy.”

No doubt, some alumni from the late 1970s will battle painful memories as the 40th anniversary of Steinberg’s death approaches. But those who have closely followed the history of THON also know that Kevin’s passing also yielded a huge positive — it helped to cement the permanent partnership between THON and Four Diamonds.


Students take part in THON 1978, the second year of its partnership with Four Diamonds. Photo by Penn State

CHANGING BENEFICIARIES

“I was the fifth overall (chairman) of THON,” notes Don Mains, another member of KDR and one of Kevin’s roommates. “Up until me, there were three beneficiaries in the first four years.”

Mains had selected Four Diamonds as the recipient agency for the 1977 marathon, and that choice remained in place for 1978 when Kevin served as a committee member and the campaign was led by co-directors Bob Bickhart (he sat in the back seat of the station wagon and suffered minor injuries) and Jimmy Cefalo (a star Penn State football player who was not in the vehicle).

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Given THON’s history of changing its beneficiary every year or two, Mains believes another agency would have been selected in 1979 if not for Steinberg’s tragic death. “I firmly believe that,” says the man who once served in the White House as Director of Advance for First Lady Barbara Bush.  

Adisey had an even closer view of the decision to partner permanently with Four Diamonds.

“The year after that wreck,” he says, “I ran the marathon. I was the chairman. I can tell you that despite that accident, there were some people in the university who wanted us to consider muscular dystrophy. All of us who were in charge of the marathon had a vote. And we decided because of the accident and also because the Four Diamonds was a Penn State charity at the time to continue with Four Diamonds.

“I would say that the impact of Kevin’s death… pushed us to continue with the Four Diamonds Fund. And now it’s certainly part of THON history.  What these students have done is absolutely unbelievable; it’s mind-boggling.”


Don Mains, left, and Kevin Steinberg served together as Homecoming leaders.

A POWERFUL PAIRING

Of course, none of this changes the fact that Kevin Steinberg’s death brought great pain and sadness to many hearts. But how many other hearts — those of kids who battle cancer and their family members — would be lacking hope without the ongoing, heart-felt partnership between THON and Four Diamonds? Other recipient agencies would have been worthy, of course. But would the student body have rallied around THON if it lacked the clear, compelling and continuing cause that Four Diamonds provides?

Nothing else in all of central Pennsylvania makes me as proud as this powerful pairing. Since 1977, THON has raised $147 million to fight childhood cancer. The largest student-run philanthropy in the world, it unleashes the annual efforts of more than 16,000 student volunteers who give over 5 million hours to the cause. Four Diamonds then supports a broad range of cancer research at Penn State Children’s Hospital and provides direct support each year to approximately 600 children with cancer.

*          *          *

If you mention THON to Penn State alumnus Albert Rothman (Class of 2002, bachelor’s degree in business logistics), you’d better be prepared to hear some enthusiasm.  

Is it true, Albert, that you were involved with Thon some 15-20 years ago? “Absolutely,” says Rothman. “I was a lot more than involved with it. I was obsessed with it. I’m obsessed with it today. It was the most selfless thing I’ve ever been part of, kids helping kids.”

As a high school student, Rothman got a head start on THON, participating in “canning” alongside his older brother, Neil, and other Penn Staters. When Albert entered PSU as a freshman in 1997, he jumped right into THON. He raised boatloads of money, provided leadership at various levels and, as a senior, served as a member of the overall committee (now called “executive committee”). A very capable woman named Jayme Rubright served as head of that committee; 12 years later, they were married and are now the parents of two small children.

Albert’s role in 2001-02 was to serve as Corporate Relations Chairman, and so he met with a business professor, Andrew Bergstein, to brainstorm ideas. That was a good choice by Rothman. I have known Bergstein since we traversed our way through State College High School as members of the Class of 1970, and I can testify to his creative thinking.

Bergstein had known Kevin Steinberg in the mid-1970s, and he suggested that Rothman create an award in Kevin’s name that would help expand THON interest within the business community. Rothman seized on the idea immediately, and the Kevin Steinberg Award was created to honor members of the Penn State or State College community “who have gone above and beyond their job description to assist THON in its mission or to assist student volunteers.”

The first recipient was Stuart Spisak, head of the local Commercial Printing company, who gave generously to THON and who actually danced all 48 hours in the 2002 marathon. This year’s recipient is Darcy Rameker, THON’s advisor from 2013 to 2017.  Not only has the award offered recognition to worthy figures, but it has helped ensure that the unforgettable Kevin Steinberg will not be forgotten within THON.

*          *          *

And surely Kevin was unforgettable.

“He was everybody’s friend,” says Bergstein. “He was ‘Mr. Everything.’ He was intelligent, handsome, every girl in town wanted to date him.”

“Kevin was a star,” says Adisey. “He could motivate the laziest person to be as motivated as he was.  Kevin was one of those guys — to meet him, you loved him. Our fraternity was crushed by the loss of Kevin. He competed to become the Nittany Lion (mascot), and I think he was the runner-up.”

According to Mains, a good measure of Steinberg’s drive came from his THON experience. “THON inspired him, just like it does for everyone. It gave him a feeling as a 20-year-old that he was making a difference in the world.”

And of course, Kevin did make a difference, one that can still be seen today. What would he think if he could drop in on THON Weekend 2018, 40 years after his last marathon? Rather than seeing 50-100 dancers doing their thing in the cozy HUB Ballroom, he would be awestruck to behold 700 dancers in cavernous Bryce Jordan Arena. Rather than raising funds in the thousands, he would surely be thrilled to see a total figure in the millions. Most of all, I’m sure he would shed tears of sorrow and joy as he listened to the stories of young heroes battling cancer with multi-faceted help from Four Diamonds.

Perhaps Kevin would say that his death was worth the inspiration that it provided to THON. But I think he would choose another approach. If given the opportunity, I think he might go right back to raising money for next year’s THON and maybe even seek to be a 2019 dancer. Kevin Steinberg would want to be involved as a living presence that makes a difference.

Readers who wish to make a contribution to THON go to donate.thon.org


THON 2017 raised more than $10 million. Photo by Alex Bauer

 



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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