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Back and Forth: Eagles Cancer Telethon is celebrating 60 years

The success of the annual Eagles Cancer Telethon is due to a simple principle: "people take ownership", whether in volunteering, donating funds or just making pork sandwiches.

I chuckled when telethon chairwoman Teresa Chapman answered my question about how she got involved.

"I started by making pork sandwiches right there in the Mayo Civic Auditorium, working with the Olmsted County Pork Producers while the telethon was in progress," she said. If you have stood in line you know what she's talking about.

Nine days from now the 60th annual Eagles Cancer Telethon will happen, Jan. 18-19. Last week I wrote about the very humble beginnings in small studios three miles west of Rochester on Hennessy Hill.

Memories keep coming from many whom I call. Teresa said she and her husband came to Rochester from Indiana in 1989 and got "hooked" as volunteers with the encouragement of Bill McCollom, who died earlier this year of brain cancer. He was 53. In working with longtime chairman Bob Callier, her goal is to continue "carrying the torch" of this mighty fundraising event.


KTTC-TV General Manager Jerry Watson stands in awe of the success annually. He arrived in Rochester in 1990 from Wichita, Kansas, which is five times larger than Rochester. He said for a city of this size to hold such a telethon, "phenomonal doesn't really do it justice."

"This is Americana – a grassroots happening. I've run into several former news anchors who received considerable TV education working this 'hometown' telethon," Watson said."People want to take ownership because a family member or friend has died of cancer."

The telethon reaches more than the 17 counties in KTTC-TV's signal coverage, as several cable networks and now the internet carry it, said Jerry, who is now regional vice president of 7 markets owned by Quincy Newspapers of Quincy, Ill.

In last week's column, I wrote that I played my musical saw on that first Eagle Cancer Telethon in 1954. I must have been 22 because 60 years later I'm 82 with proud memories of participating, reading pledges and making TV station breaks throughout the night time hours.

In starting those first telethons, all KROC Radio and TV personnel, announcers and engineers, camera men and custodians were involved. Voices included Don Eggerstrom, Cal Smith, Jerry Boyun and Bernie Lusk, the long time host through the mid 1980s. Engineers included Clayton "Bud" Sanders, Ed Searles, Ken Stoltenberg, Bill Witte, Jim Vandal, Randy Growden and camera film editor Stan Kunz. Also Don Monge.

When the telethon left the downtown radio-television building at 601 First Ave. S.W. to move to the Mayo Civic Auditorium in the early 1980s, the call letters had changed from KROC to KTTC-TV, still Channel 10 with coverage expanding through the cable system. Ron Gruber, who joined KROC radio in about 1965, was the TV weatherman for several years and then became operations manager, a level he held until his retirement in 2002. Another early engineer was Bob Cross, who served as chief engineer for many years, and his son Bill Cross.

At Mayo Civic Auditorium, Ed Searles recalls stringing wires from the truck outside the auditorium through a window into the men's locker room and out onto the stage.

"I blocked the door open, even left a note "do not close the door" to protect the series of wires and cables. Some guy must have wanted privacy and closed the door, which cut the cables and we were off the air for 45 minutes," he laughed.


"But the whole event was fun, year after year," said Ed. He was recently honored for being involved 61 years, serving the Mayo Civic Auditorium through lighting and sound.

Next week:Part 3, the finale of the Eagles Cancer Telethon History.

Harley Flathers is a longtime Rochester-area broadcaster and historian. Got a comment for Harley? Send it to news@postbulletin.com or to Harley at Post-Bulletin, P.O. Box 6118, Rochester, MN 55903. His column runs on Thursdays.

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