LIMA — Entertainer Danny Thomas took a break from his television sitcom “Make Room for Daddy” in the summer of 1958. Instead of relaxing, Thomas undertook an exhausting journey to fulfill a promise.
“Danny Thomas has resumed filming his CBS-TV comedy series for next season after forsaking his vacation by driving more than 9,000 miles across the country proselyting on behalf of his St. Jude Hospital fund,” columnist Perry Smith wrote in the Lima News on Aug. 2, 1958. “He made dozens of personal appearances in a score of cities, a strenuous schedule that lasted more than a month.”
That odyssey was far from a one-time thing. On June 22, 1961, the News reported that Thomas suffered “excessive throat fatigue following a month-long tour on behalf of his St. Jude building project.”
Thomas, who died in 1991, often took to the road to make good on the promise he made as a struggling young actor in Detroit in the 1940s. Praying to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes, Thomas, according to a web site for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, asked the saint to “help me find my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.”
By the 1950s, Thomas had found his way and, thanks to his relentless promotion and fundraising, the shrine became a reality on Feb. 4, 1962, with the opening of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. The hospital, which treats children regardless of the family’s ability to pay, is a leading children’s hospital pioneering research and treatments for children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
Almost since the hospital’s inception, the Lima area has pitched in. Even today the area’s calendar is sprinkled with concerts, motorcycle poker runs and other events designed to raise money for the hospital.
The most visible efforts, however, occurred between 1975 and 2002 when an annual telethon brought in more than $11 million in pledges. The face of the telethon was WLIO-TV personality Ric Bratton who teamed with visiting celebrities — often soap opera actors who took a break from cheating, being cheated upon or losing their memories — to help with the fund-raising. Bratton also served as president of the Allen County Chapter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
In the early telethons, the celebrities were a little less celebrated and the fundraising goals a little more modest. “A four-hour call-in telethon with contributions going to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Lima television station WLIO,” the News announced July 20, 1975. “The show will include local talent as well as some national celebrities. Among those scheduled to appear is Linda Jefferson, female athlete of the year. Miss Jefferson is a football player and track star, according to Ric Bratton of WLIO-TV.” Jefferson played for the Toledo Troopers of the short-lived National Women’s Football League.
Expenses for that first telethon and subsequent telethons were underwritten by local groups. In 1975 the Jaycees, Exchange Club, UAW CAP Council and FOP lodge footed the bill. “The thing we most want to emphasize is that when people pay a dollar to the show, a dollar goes to the hospital because all costs are already covered,” Bratton told the News.
Approximately $13,000 was pledged in 1975. “The money will cover the cost of a patient’s room and adjoining parents’ room in a wing presently being constructed at the Memphis, Tennessee hospital,” the News wrote on July 24, 1975.
The 1976 telethon, which, according to an ad in the News would be broadcast live from the area around the fountain in the center of the Lima Mall, had a more ambitious goal of $35,000. It featured appearances by four Ohio State football players but also received money raised through community events such as bake sales, book fairs, dance marathons and go-kart races. Over the years money raised at community events bolstered the telethon. In 1976, more than $27,000 was pledged with the money earmarked for the salary of a researcher at St. Jude.
More than $31,000 was raised at the 1977 telethon, which featured six Ohio State football players and, according to the June 17, 1977, edition of the News, “hot air balloon rides provided by Thunderchicken, a skydiving clown.”
Eventually the telethon’s goal rose into six figures and skydiving clowns were replaced by television celebrities. The goal for the 1991 telethon was set at $605,000. “National celebrities appearing this year include David Bailey and John Aprea, both of ‘Another World,’ Lisa Dean Ryan of ‘Doogie Howser, M.D.,’ and Joely Fisher of ‘Mulberry Street,’” the News wrote June 23, 1991. Bailey, who was best known for playing Dr. Russ Matthews on “Another World,” helped on more than 20 of the telethons. He died in 2004,
In a 1999 story in the News, Bratton talked about the telethon’s format. “Bingo, pancake breakfasts, chicken dinners: All typical fund-raisers of a small Ohio town. Before the format of the St. Jude’s Telethon was decided, all the options were explored,” the News wrote June 15, 1999. “’So this could have been our 25th annual bake sale,’” said Ric Bratton, the telethon’s host, with a laugh.” Guests that year included Adam West, TV’s original Batman, and Genson Ackles, who played Eric Brady on “Days of Our Lives.” More than $730,000 was raised in 1999.
After nearly a quarter century broadcasting from the Lima Mall, the telethon was moved to Veterans Memorial Civic Center in 2000. “We just outgrew the mall,” Bratton told the News on June 22, 2000.
With Chris Sabo of the Cincinnati Reds and Kirsten Storms of “Days of Our Lives” joining Bratton and Bailey, the 2001 telethon raised a record $738,587. “The amount raised was more than $2,000 above last year’s total and brings the total raised in Lima for the Memphis, Tennessee, childhood cancer research and treatment center to $11,287,568.” Bratton told the News on June 21, 2001.
Although the telethon was doing well, Bratton wasn’t. In March 2002, Bratton entered a written plea of not guilty to felony theft charges involving a business relationship with the Tom Ahl auto dealership. Bratton, who operated a private advertising consulting agency, was accused of receiving thousands of dollars to pay bills owed media outlets but failing to do so. Bratton’s financial problems mounted, eventually costing him his house, his job and his liberty.
“A mountain of financial trouble that dismantled Ric Bratton’s life, costing his job and good name, on Thursday stripped his liberty,” the News reported Feb. 28, 2003. Bratton was sentenced to 30 days in jail, four years of probation and community service. He eventually left Lima, taking a job in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In March 2003, WLIO announced the telethon would be suspended. “WLIO President and General Manager Bruce Opperman said there were questions about whether a good program could be pulled together, particularly with longtime telethon host Ric Bratton no longer with the station,” the News wrote March 6, 2003.
Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]