Penn State dance charity event goes on amid scandal

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — In Pennsylvania State University's proud, 156-year history, few days proved darker than Nov. 9, 2011. That's the night the school's mushrooming child sex-abuse scandal finally cost iconic coach Joe Paterno his job, sparking the student body's cringe-inducing riotous response.

But across campus from the burning rubbish and overturned news truck, and hidden from the cable news cameras, Penn State's better angels quietly spent the day trying to piece the school's tattered reputation back together.

By coincidence, Nov. 9 — the high-water mark of the scandal's international feeding frenzy — also began the 100-day countdown to the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, the school's heralded philanthropy event benefiting pediatric cancer.

"I think we all felt it," said Kirsten Quisenberry, a 23-year-old Penn State senior who serves on the executive board of the event, commonly referred to as "Thon." "But it was still a highly successful day, just dancing, having fun and celebrating what we do.

"We have faith that we can rebuild the Penn State name," added Quisenberry, of Mars, Pa. "Our biggest hope is that people realize that we are simply here to support these families, both emotionally and financially."

While there's no lack of disgust over allegations that school administrators for years knowingly harbored Jerry Sandusky, who's accused of molesting children, there's also little evidence that the public has taken out its anger on Thon.

Corporate donations so far have matched, if not exceeded, those of last spring, when the event raised a record $9.6 million, Quisenberry says.

Student volunteers who spend their weekends shaking donation cans on street corners throughout Pennsylvania have, by and large, been thanked for their commitment, not abused for their association with Penn State.

While dance marathons have become a fashionable way to raise money for pet causes, Thon organizers are quick to remind listeners that Penn State's event is the nation's first, and largest.

The event — a 46-hour endurance test for some 700 dancers each year — has raised more than $78 million since 1973 for children being treated for cancer at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital.

And while 90 percent of what's raised comes from private donors, nearly $1 million of last year's sum was the result of corporate giving, which already is strained by economic realities.

This year, many businesses whose names appear on Thon's list of donors not only have reaffirmed their commitment to the charity, but some also say they plan to give more.

"We can think of nothing better to support," said Mark Weinstein, the president of BioClinica, a medical company in Newtown, Pa., that's pledged at least $15,000 to Thon in 2012. "There were a lot of missteps along the way, but I don't feel that it's an indictment against the school.

"I don't think the kids should be penalized."

Weinstein has a personal connection to Thon; he has two children who danced in previous years, and his son Sam serves as his fraternity's event co-chairman.

Other businesses have reaffirmed their affiliations even without family ties.

Nike gave at least $25,000 last February and will do so again in 2012, a company spokesman said. Bank of America stands by its sizable gift in 2011, although the company hadn't yet determined its 2012 philanthropic priorities, spokesman T.J. Crawford said.

"We are more committed than ever to supporting the dance marathon," said Michael Stapleford, who runs QWiK Rock 105.9, a State College radio station that also gives in the thousands. "Our company, our community and our university have always striven to promote the welfare of children, and the dance marathon is probably the best example of that."

Of course, almost everything with Penn State in its name is either connected directly with or has in some way benefited from its football program. Thon is no different. The event's website still displays a past quote from Paterno, expressing support.

(Adam H. Beasley writes for The Miami Herald.)


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