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First THON Turns into Fairy Tale for First Dancers

by on February 19, 2014 7:05 AM

When Jan Bortner volunteered to participate in a dance marathon at Penn State 41 years ago, of course he was interested in helping a good cause, but he was more interested in finding a way to spend time with a girl.

Laraine caught his eye in biology class. For him, in that classroom, it was "love at first sight." Turns out, she'd been eyeing him in the same class – among about 600 other students. If Jan had gone to class more, he might have noticed, Laraine says.

When Jan heard from his buddies at his dorm about a dance marathon for couples, Jan and Laraine had already been on one date. Though, technically, Laraine says, there were two dates, if you count his birthday party that he invited her to.

Either way, Jan was certain a dance marathon for couples was the next best step to woo her.

But when he called up Laraine, she wasn't interested. She needed to study – no time for dancing. Larraine also says her reluctance was due to a movie she'd just seen, "They Kill Horses, Don't They?" which is about a grueling dance marathon that ended in death for some.

Noticing Jan wasn't taking no for an answer, Laraine finally admitted she had a date the same night the marathon ended.

It took 45 minutes of lobbying for Jan to convince Laraine to say yes.

"So I finally said, 'OK I can do it, but I have to leave after because I have a date Saturday night,'" Laraine says.

Jan, who was on the men's tennis team, also had to overcome one other hurdle – getting his coach to sign off on him missing practice. He pleaded with his coach, "I'm really serious. I really like this girl that I'm asking." Fortunately, his coach showed him mercy.

"Thank God for that," Jan says.

It wasn't easy getting there, but Jan and Laraine, now married for 37 years, became a part of history that weekend as the dance marathon developed into what is the largest student-run philanthropy effort in the world.

Penn State's THON, now a massive dance marathon, was first organized in 1973 by Penn State's Interfraternity Council President Bill Lear. Roughly 39 couples danced inside a ballroom at the HUB-Robeson Center, the student union center. The event raised more than $2,000 for the Butler County Association for Retarded Children.

The couples danced to 50's, 60's, and 70's music from soul to rock and roll, mostly by record player. Jan and Laraine made it 26 hours into the 30 hour marathon before calling quits. Jan says he could have kept going, but Laraine was simply exhausted.

"It was very fun early on and probably we shouldn't have been so enthusiastic dancing in the beginning," Laraine says.

Today, THON it is the longest dance marathon in the country, lasting 46 hours.

The event raises funds for pediatric cancer treatment and research through the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital. Last year, THON donated $12.4 million to Four Diamonds. In all, THON has raised more than $101 million for the fund.

Jan, an assistant athletic director at Penn State, and Laraine, a counselor with the State College Area School District, have had a close-up view as the event has evolved over the last four decades. They watched it move from the HUB to the White Building to Rec Hall to the Bryce Jordan Center.

"As it's moved around the campus I've followed the event because it's just incredible, not only in terms of what it does for pediatric cancer, but what it does for the entire community ... it's just been something that's obviously for me very exciting to follow to see what it's become," says Jan.

Still today's THON is nothing like the original marathon. It was a 30-hour event, so shorter than today's THON. However, Jan and Laraine say it was much more grueling. There weren't people coming around giving massages to participants. There weren't any snacks nearby. If you wanted food or something to drink, you had to have your friends run out to the dining hall for you.

Organizers were also strict when it came to bathroom breaks. Laraine remembers breaks being as short as one minute. Jan says teams would lose points for taking a break to use the restroom.

"It was non-stop dancing. There wasn't a social committee coming around with food and drinks," Jan says. "You had to keep dancing. You had to keep moving. It was physically taxing."

After 26 hours, Laraine says she had enough – not to mention her date was about to arrive to pick her up.

"By the end you're just moving your feet and hanging on each other," she says.

Turns out, the marathon plan worked to Jan's advantage. Laraine ended up being simply too tired to go on the date. They became a couple, fell in love, and now have three adult children together – all who also attended Penn State.

Photo Gallery - First THON

Jennifer Miller is a reporter for She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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