It was a brief headline on msn.com, but compelled me to take note. Jerry Lewis recently announced that he is retiring from his Labor Day telethon, returning this year for only a brief stint to perform his trademark “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
I was part of a generation glued to the set each Labor Day weekend to watch Jerry and His Kids, cheering on their victories over Muscular Dystrophy, having fun at camp, eyes peeled for the next celebrity who would perform and, ultimately, moved to call the 800 number in the waning hours of the telecast to make my own gift of $5.00, $10.00, or whatever I could muster as a pledge from my weekly allowance.
Reflecting back, I say thanks to Mr. Lewis, who broke ground as a celebrity spokesperson, bravely taking on a cause that devastated so many families, and a pioneer to model what – for so many – would become an accepted and lucrative way of fundraising. But, moreso, I wonder, what did Jerry teach us “kids” who grew up in an era of tele-philanthropy, learning to respond and give to a call for need?
That first Telethon in 1966 raised a whopping $1 million. Last year, in 2010, Labor Day fundraising brought in more than $1 million per major market, generating a total of nearly $59 million for research and programs to find a cure for Muscular Dystrophy and ALS (or, Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
I would say: The Telethon taught an entire generation to give. It came into our homes in a way no message before could and tugged at out heartstrings, telling real-life stories of human suffering and need. It allowed us to join and be connected with strangers from afar, giving the sense that we were are part of a community; that Our Gift Makes a Difference every time the toteboard would roll. For me – like so many of us – a philosophy of giving was shaped by The Telethon, by placing dimes in the cards for the Mother’s March of Dimes, for the little boxes to collect for UNICEF at Halloween, by community endeavors — small and large — for causes popular and less-known.
In recent years, we have seen the power of the press and social media in giving to disasters – Katrina, Rita, Haitian Relief, and the Tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan. Americans marvel – and should be proud – of how they responded with gifts that raised the bar, increasing giving, according to GivingUSA, by reaching into their pockets ever deeper, evermore generously.
But is this a phenomenon? I would say no. It’s the logical extension of awareness of human need, brought into our homes by television, radio and the print media.
So, rather than a new wave of giving, aren’t just we following lessons learned years ago? I submit that we are. For that, I say, thanks Mr. Lewis, for teaching us compassion and care, and a way to respond to a call for need. And, Mr. Lewis, for that, I say “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”