The following piece was written by Kerry Royer, a previous Four Diamonds Advisory Board Member, at the time of Four Diamonds’ 40th anniversary in 2012.
“It was love at first sight,” said Charles Millard, talking about the marriage between the Four Diamonds Fund and the Penn State Dance Marathon.
The iconic fundraising event, held every February at University Park, and affectionately known as THON, has raised nearly $69 million* for the fund founded by Millard and his wife, Irma. The event is now as much a part of the Penn State experience as Creamery ice cream and Nittany Lion football. Families who have benefitted from the Four Diamonds Fund join in the weekend’s festivities and some children who have been beneficiaries of the fund are assigned to specific student groups to encourage the dancers.
THON is the largest student run philanthropy in the world and its efforts benefit the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital for kids battling childhood cancer. THON is a year-long fundraising effort that culminates in a 46 hour no sitting, no sleeping weekend for students dedicated to the cause.
That is a tradition that started in 1977 when the Interfraternity Council Dance Marathon first benefitted the fund for kids with cancer. “The students met with the families and the dance marathon and Four Diamonds Fund have been together ever since,” said Charles Millard.
One family’s idea has benefitted more than 2,000 families since 1972. Approximately 100 new families receive support each year. The fund has grown to have the ability to offset the cost of treatment that insurance does not cover, as well as expenses that may disrupt the welfare of the child, such as car repairs, rent, or household utilities. The Fund supports the medical team that cares for the children and funds pediatric cancer research through start-up grants and the Four Diamonds Pediatric Cancer Research Institute.
Charles and Irma Millard lost their son, Chris, to cancer in 1972. That very day, they got together with staff at Hershey Medical Center and told them that they wanted to start a fund to help other families facing the same struggle. Charles Millard said that when his son was treated in Boston, he did not have to pay any uncovered medical bills thanks to the Jimmy Fund, first sponsored by the Boston Red Sox. Chris and Irma Millard spent weeks at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center because the proper treatment was not yet available in the late 70s in Hershey.
The Millards were inspired to start a cancer treatment fund in central Pennsylvania so that other families would not have those additional worries on top of providing care and support for their kids. In a Harrisburg Evening News interview, Irma Millard said at the time, “We established the fund here to do what the Jimmy Fund did for us in Boston, so that the families in Pennsylvania would not have to leave the state and break up their homes, etc.
“What we really wanted to do was to try to take something negative like the loss of a beautiful life that could have had a brilliant future and make it something positive, so that it would be more than the death of a child and the loss of his future – but a future for children that were ill so that we could help them live,” she said.
It became a positive outlet for the Millard family’s grief. “It was a sort of therapy for the first five years,” said Charles. “If you let a family tragedy like this knock you down, it will. I just never did.”
The Millards organized local fundraisers, presented at service clubs and held events like a celebrity memorabilia auction at Park City Mall in Lancaster. The Hershey-Palmyra Sertoma Club also donated. The Millards worked on their own to honor the memory of their son and donated funds raised to Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center.
At the same time Penn State was holding an annual dance marathon at University Park, which benefitted a different charity each year. Herb Kraybill, a Penn State alumnus and officer of gifts and endowments at the medical center, brought up the idea that the students at the university should consider sponsoring their own school through the Millards’ fund.
Kraybill told the Millards that he wanted to know more about Chris. Among other things, they shared Chris’ symbolic story, The Four Diamonds, which he wrote for school about a knight attaining the four diamonds of courage, wisdom, honesty and strength in his battle against evil. They found their name for their cancer treatment fund.
Kraybill arranged for the Millards to travel to State College in the fall of 1976 to take part in a Penn State Office of Student Affairs public charity event where students were hosting a day-long WDFM radio program telethon for Four Diamonds. It was held in the Hetzel Union Building “Fishbowl.” Dr. Raymond Murphy, was then vice president for student affairs. He recollects, “As a special highlight, we had The Four Diamonds story as written by Chris Millard read by a group of school children from Park Forest Elementary School.”
In a letter to Kraybill, Murphy wrote, “The radio show was meant to be a one-time event but the impact of the story of Chris Millard on Penn State students cannot be overestimated …. The students that Sunday created a Penn State legend. None of us on that cold January Sunday had any idea that what we were doing would live on year after year.”
Also in 1976, Penn State student Donald Mains was public relations chair for the Dance Marathon. He was named overall chair for 1977. He happened to be in the HUB that day, heard the radio show and was inspired by what he heard. He asked for more information about The Four Diamonds. The IFC met with Kraybill and they agreed that story behind the creation of the fund was so compelling. “We liked that it was Penn State related and it felt like the right thing to do,” said Mains. The relationship all made sense to him and it became the beneficiary of the Dance Marathon that Mains chaired. “A natural bond formed and now there is no disconnect between the two organizations,” he said.
Mains said, “It turned out to be a wonderful marriage from the beginning. Four Diamonds representatives provided immediate support, and the students were moved by the story written by Chris Millard. It energized the whole Penn State community. It unites us.” He recalls that the invitation for organizers and winning participants to visit Hershey for a tour of the medical center put everything into perspective.
The stars seemed to align for the Dance Marathon and Four Diamonds to be “forever cemented” as Mains terms it. Also, a 2007 Daily Collegian article reports that Kraybill discussed the fund at a local high school around the time of the buzz about two philanthropies in their infancies. A student when home and told his father about Four Diamonds. “The student’s father, affiliated with THON at the time, thought it would be a good charity for the dance marathon,” the newspaper reports.
When Mains revisits his Dance Marathon and Four Diamonds Fund memories, he said he relives some of the happiest and saddest times in his life. His close friend and fraternity roommate, Kevin Steinberg, was IFC vice president and helped to name the co-chairmen of the 1978 Dance Marathon Robert Bickhart and Jimmy Cefalo, star wide receiver for Joe Paterno and future Miami Dolphin.
Mains said that in March of 1978, Steinberg traveled with other students to Hershey to be honored for their roles in the Dance Marathon. “They never made it since a car crossed the median outside Harrisburg and smashed into their car. Kevin was killed instantly and a number of the other students seriously wounded,” he said.
Mains said, “It was terrible to lose a friend who was just ready to make a mark on this world. But looking back, I realize that Kevin had made is mark, because he moved his friends in a way that we will always remember.”
Bickhart said, “The Dance Marathon is never far from my thoughts because it remains my most significant contribution to an institution I love. My memories are bittersweet. The thrill of working with and meeting such terrific people and kids is often tempered by the tragedy of our car accident and Kevin’s death. It is still hard for me to separate the two.”
“This did not mean the end of the Dance Marathon but a re-dedication to the lives that the Four Diamonds serves,” recalled Murphy.
Since then, the lives that Four Diamonds and THON touch in a tremendously inspirational way are exponential each year that they grow.
*Note: As of THON Weekend 2022, THON has raised over $200 million for Four Diamonds.