Pictured (l-r) are Rodney Donley, Gayle Coss, Ernie Blankenship Jr. and Heather Cummings. The photo of the late Ernie Blankenship is displayed in his former office at NCB in Hillsboro. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Pictured (l-r) are Rodney Donley, Gayle Coss, Ernie Blankenship Jr. and Heather Cummings. The photo of the late Ernie Blankenship is displayed in his former office at NCB in Hillsboro. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
As the 46th annual Ernie Blankenship Radio-Telethon for the benefit of the Highland County Society for Children and Adults approaches, members of the host bank, Blankenship's son and the society's director took time to reflect on the telethon's namesake.

In 2013, the event was named the Ernie Blankenship Radio-Telethon in honor of Blankenship's long service as telethon emcee and chairman of the Hillsboro Rotary Club committee.

This year's telethon, hosted by the Hillsboro and Greenfield Rotary Clubs, will be broadcast live Wednesday, March 28 from 6-9 p.m. from the NCB main office in Hillsboro on the local community access channel of the Time Warner Cable System and on WSRW 101.5, WSRW AM 1590 and iHeart Radio. The Easter Bunny will appear at the telethon in Hillsboro this year from 6-7 p.m.

In Greenfield, the event will be broadcast from 6-9 p.m. from the McClain High School Media Room on the local community access channel of Time Warner Cable System, along with periodic broadcasts on radio station WVNU FM 97.5.

As Blankenship served as NCB's senior vice-president, working at the bank for over 25 years, NCB's vice president Heather Cummings and business development officer Rodney Donley said that it's special for the bank to host the annual telethon. The site of the telethon alternates each year among NCB, Merchants National Bank and US Bank in uptown Hillsboro.

"NCB is a huge part of the community, and I think it's an even huger part for us, and means more to us, that Ernie worked here for so many years and had such a passion for this event," Cummings said. "It means a little more to us when we host it, versus other years.

"We try to do what he would do if he was still here when we host it and hope that this is one of those years we can make an exception and make more money.

"We try to think outside the box and get new ideas to get more people involved. You never know when it could be you or a family member of yours that could be touched by this."

Blankenship's son, Ernie Blankenship, said that his father appreciated NCB's involvement over the years as well as the contributions of Merchants National Bank and US Bank.

"Even though he was a part of NCB, Dad felt it was important for the community to continue to share that and continue to rotate it through," Blankenship said. "I know he was always very appreciative of how NCB always responded to whatever he asked for."

As not only emcee, but chairman of the Rotary Club committee, the telethon was the late Ernie Blankenship's focus throughout the year, according to his son.

"They always said as soon as a telethon ended, they started planning for the next year," Blankenship said.

Blankenship said his father would host a "lessons learned type session" after the telethon each year so he and other committee members could discuss aspects of that year's event that they felt succeeded or failed. The rest of the year was devoted to raising money or awareness for the telethon.

"He did it throughout the years as things came up," Blankenship said. "Fortunately, with him being so involved in sports, as things came up throughout the year, he used that as an opportunity to talk about the telethon."

"I would agree with that," Cummings said. "I remember we would hear him (in his office) talking to someone, and he would say 'we need tickets for XYZ for this event for our telethon' or 'I need you to make an appearance at our telethon next March.' You'd hear him talking to random people."

Society director Gayle Coss said that Blankenship's passion for the telethon never wavered.

"Ernie was large in this community, in everything," Coss said. "He was so enthusiastic about [the Society], all the time. That enthusiasm was always there. He must have had a bad day, like we all do, but if he did, he never let that show."

Coss added that Blankenship was able to "get donations from everywhere."

"He got jerseys from the Bengals and the Reds or autographed pictures," Coss said. "All of his contacts really helped."

In addition to bringing in memorabilia and items for fundraising auctions, the elder Ernie Blankenship never shied away from the spotlight during the telethon, even if it meant shaving or dyeing his hair to collect donations.

"He had his hair shaved," Blankenship said. "One year, he had red, white and blue spikes. I think it started just by dyeing it black. It was such a change from his normal, everyday silver hair. I think that grew to shaving his head."

"I've only been involved since '93, but I remember he wore different costumes," Coss said. "He dressed as an Indian one time."

Coss laughed while remembering that the longtime emcee would often pass the microphone to people he knew, putting them on the spot.

"One of the things I always remember about Ernie is he'd be on the microphone talking, and if you walked anywhere within 10 feet of him, he'd be handing you the microphone," Coss said. "You had to be prepared. He wasn't stingy about sharing his time up there or anything."

Coss also noted Blankenship's custom to ring a bell every time they hit a fundraising milestone or updated the totals on the board during the telethon.

"He'd ring that bell every time we put the next total up," Coss said. "We still have that bell. It's guarded with our lives, since it's Ernie's bell. It just was kind of Ernie's radio-telethon.

"And he was so good with the kids. He loved it when the kids came."

Blankenship said that the children who benefited from the society sparked his father's passion for the telethon.

"Certainly, Dad always had a soft spot in kids in general, but he definitely took an interest in special needs kids, and he was always there to help out others when he didn't feel they could help themselves," Blankenship said.

Donley said that Ernie Blankenship left a legacy as "a giver."

"He always struck me as what I would call a giver," Donley said. "He was a giver of his time and whatever he could do for you to try to help you out.

"It was never about himself. It was always about other people, all the time."

The Society assists Highland County children and adults with medical expenses, including drug prescriptions, diagnostic tests, medical procedures, travel expenses for out-of-county medical facilities and devices including ramps for homes, wheelchairs, beds and other items. Coss noted that they helped this year's poster child, Patrick "P.J." Norton, by purchasing a GoTo chair that holds him in an upright position.

"It's amazing the number of times somebody will call and ask for help with something and they'll tell me 'I've contributed to this for every year, never thinking that it would happen to me, that I would need the help,'" Coss said. "It does touch everybody."

Many of the Society's clients are referred by hospital social workers, churches and other charitable organizations.

"We still do things on a gentleman's handshake," Coss said. "We don’t have an office because we don't want to spend that money. I work from home, so our overhead is really low, eight percent or less. I turn the phone on at 9 in the morning and turn it off at 4, Monday through Friday.

"We have agreements with pretty much all the doctors in town, most of the pharmacies, all the eye doctors and all the dentists. The patient goes in and receives their service, and whoever their provider was sends me a bill."

Coss said that the Society's next milestone they are looking forward to reaching is the $4 million mark in total contributions, as they surpassed $3 million in donations in 2013.

"It's tighter now than it ever has been," Coss said. "In 2008, when we had the big financial crash, donations really went down that year, and they have not gone back up to what they were before that. We pretty much spend everything we get, every year."

Blankenship encouraged the community to donate to the Society's telethon, saying "it touches everyone in the county."

"It's definitely an organization that needs the continued support of its community members," Blankenship said. "The one thing that I like about this organization is the fact that it touches everyone in the county. Obviously, with Hillsboro being the county seat, it has a large role in it, but everyone throughout the county is touched. I think that's something that Dad would have definitely believed in."

Blankenship credited his mother, Rita Kay, for helping his father over the years and continuing to encourage her children and grandchildren to be involved with the Society.

"Mom's always been by Dad's side throughout," Blankenship said. "She always volunteered and answered phones. She's definitely had a major role in it.

"My brothers, Smoke and Todd, have contributed and been around a lot. I certainly try to stay around and thank everybody and make sure everybody knows how much that it means to the community. I certainly appreciate it.

"It's something Dad's always been so passionate about," Blankenship continued.

"It was definitely his lifetime goal to continue to raise money. He always took an opportunity to share about the telethon, and that was one of the reasons why he was able to bring in so much money outside of the community."

Coss said that when Blankenship was still living, she would often receive donations from out of state for several weeks after the telethon. She said she knew "Ernie had to have something to do with that."

"The telethon kind of was Ernie," Coss said. "That's how I feel about it. It was a tremendous loss for the community and the Society. He meant so much to everybody.

"We were lucky to have him here."