Eagles Telethon achieves 40 years, looks to exceed $750,000 this year*

By Correne Martin –Courier Press*

Ding-a-LingsThe Eagles Heart and Cancer Telethon will reach a major milestone on Saturday, Jan. 31. Not only will this be the 40th year of the community celebration in support of heart and cancer research, but it will also be the year in which donations exceed $750,000. That’s three-quarters of a million dollars! (Photo: It wouldn’t be the Eagles Heart and Cancer Telethon without the locally-famous Ding-a-Lings. These lovely ladies have been performing on the telethon stage since the very first year of the event in 1976. (Photo by Randy Paske)

The 2015 talent show, live auction and eight-hour spectacle will begin at 5 p.m. at Bluff View Intermediate School in Prairie du Chien and last until1 a.m. Up to 15 raffles and live auction items will include a 2014-15 mens’ Wisconsin Badger basketball, signed by all the players and coaches; a 2014-15 Packer football signed by the team; a Robin Yount signed print; a Corey Hart signed print accompanied by two Brewers club seat tickets.

The Boy Scouts will offer concessions on site. For those looking for a place to view the telethon on TV, members as well as non-members are welcome at the Eagles Club to watch the show, bid on auction items and enjoy snacks and hor d’oeuvres.

As the fun unravels live in Bluff View’s cafeteria—with plenty of familiar and new talent to go around—the donations will stream in for such a heartwarming cause.

After last year wrapped, a total of $720,830 had been raised over 39 years and dispersed to three different medical research facilities: Gundersen Clinic Research Center and Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse as well as the UW Carbone Cancer Center in Madison.

As this landmark 40th year approaches, organizers from the Eagles Club and the community started planning earlier than usual, in August of last year.

“We knew we had to do things that were going to make this particular show special,” Co-host Tom Nelson said.

One of 2015’s highlights will be old video clips from the past 40 years, some of which spotlight the late Jim Bittner, the host of all hosts from the early years. Also, time will be taken during the show to remember telethon contributions from young Danny Ruehlow, who died at the age of 15 in December of 2000, due to complications from a second bone marrow transplant in his fight against leukemia. In addition, participants, behind-the-scenes personnel and viewers are asked to share their personal memories about all aspects of the telethon, to potentially be shared during the live show. Cards will be handed out the evening of the telethon as well for those in the live audience to share statements. To submit your memories early, visit eaglestelethon.org and click on “Remember When...” Finally, the Hearty Donors category has put a fresh spin on those who give over $1,000 each year for the telethon. Those benefactors include the PdC wrestlers, the Sew Watts, MPC, the PdC Class of 1986 and the 12th Street Telethon Party.

When the $750,000 mark is reached, a “special celebration” will take place, according to Nelson. Bells and whistles may just go off all over town, he said.

Another key moment in the 2015 Eagles Telethon will be the presentation of a Wisconsin governor’s proclamation recognizing the event’s 40 years in Prairie du Chien. Local Assembly Rep. Lee Nerison will hand the distinctive document to event organizers at some point during the program Saturday.

Plus, there will be separate presentations to each of the three medical facilities that benefit from the telethon’s yearly donations: Gundersen, Mayo and UW.

Peter Grabow, executive director of the Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Health Care Foundation, is one of the men who will personally accept a donation on his organization’s behalf.

“I love the Eagles of Prairie du Chien. They are such a committed organization,” Grabow said. “There’s so much energy that goes into the telethon, and all the talent that’s there from the community is amazing.”

Mayo Clinic has received around $100,000 from the Eagles Heart and Cancer Telethon in the last 11 years since it became a recipient. All of that money has supported research that has resulted in medical advances.

One project Mayo completed in recent years, thanks to around $9,000 from the Eagles Telethon, was a national research project involving heart defects and cancer.

“One of the potential risks with chemotherapy is the possibility of heart issues arising themselves,” Grabow said. “The telethon funds supported research to develop a system which can help the health care team more quickly and accurately detect any abnormalities that may develop in the heart from the chemo. Such research can really be shared around the world and it’s all because of  donations like this. It’s incredible that the Eagles and the community of Prairie du Chien have kept the telethon going for 40 years.”

Co-host Tom Stram echoed that sentiment: “It’s hard to believe it’s run so long. It may be organized by the Eagles Club, but this is really a community event and everyone should be proud of what it has become.”

“The biggest thing is it’s always been about people,” Nelson stated. “Yes, we’ve raised some money and the money we’ve raised is really bringing about some changes in people’s lives. But it amazes me how many people have been involved and how far this thing has reached.”

“It’s unbelievable that the people of our little area have raised such a great amount of money,” added Bob Sebastian, one of the original telethon organizers who has counted every last dollar of the $720,000-plus.

Forty years ago, in 1976, the Eagles Telethon was televised from the Kickapoo Antenivision Studio (Mediacom studio). Those early organizers who still have a hand in the gratifying affair today include Richard Hagensack, technical coordinator; Tom Nelson, host; Bob Sebastian, donation/billing clerk; Paul White, donation handler; the Jim Bittner family (four generations) and the Mel and Ev Dow family (three generations). The locally-famous female musical group, the Ding-a-Lings, are the one performing act that has been there since the beginning as well.

In the past four decades, as technology has advanced, so has the telethon. After its first four years in the Mediacom studio, it was broadcast from the B.A. Kennedy Elementary School from 1981 to 2000. Then it moved to Bluff View Intermediate School, where it has stayed since. These days, if you can’t watch the telethon on the Prairie du Chien cable TV channel, you can view it at one of the local bars and restaurants, or you can stream it live thanks to Ustream.com, from anywhere in the world. While watching, you can also donate by calling the phone number on the screen or, new this year, you can utilize PayPal, an online payment system available at eaglestelethon.org.

“The online network has had a big part in helping this thing survive,” Nelson commented.

“People have moved away but they still watch the telethon from all over the world and contribute what they can. And that audience is expanding,” Sebastian added.

During last year’s telethon, around 8 p.m., about 175 online viewers tuned into the show.

To access the live Eagles telethon online Saturday night, go to www.ustream.tv/channel/eagles-heart-and-cancer-telethon, find the telethon on Facebook and click on the link there, or visit eaglestelethon.org and click on the Ustream button there.

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Eagles Heart and Cancer Telethon is wishes to thank the Courier Press for the quoted article. (Link)