First State Bank CEO Mike Pell, second from left, speaks as (l-r) emcee Herb Day, event organizer Judge Rocky Coss and emcee Rick Williams look on. The bank cohosted the annual telethon for the first time in 2020.
First State Bank CEO Mike Pell, second from left, speaks as (l-r) emcee Herb Day, event organizer Judge Rocky Coss and emcee Rick Williams look on. The bank cohosted the annual telethon for the first time in 2020.

A pandemic, a three-month delay and a switch to a virtual format didn’t deter Highland County from turning out to support the 2020 Ernie Blankenship Radio-Telethon Wednesday, June 24, which raised over $93,000 for the Highland County Society for Children and Adults.

The telethon, hosted annually by the Hillsboro and Greenfield Rotary Clubs, is in its 48th year. The event is typically held in March, but due to COVID-19, the telethon was postponed and later rescheduled for June 24 as a virtual event only. As of 10:30 p.m., the telethon had unofficially raised $84,470, but on Thursday, June 25 that total was updated to $91,160.

On June 29, the total was updated to $93,560. "I am pleased to report that we received an additional $1,900 in new donations in the mail Friday and Saturday," Judge Rocky Coss told The Highland County Press on Monday, June 29. "That brings our current total to $93,560. I am still looking for some additional donations from a couple of Rotary members and expect we will receive a few more in the next couple of days. I am optimistic that we will exceed the $94,000 mark which is great, given the economic conditions we are currently in as well as all of the challenges that we faced in putting the event on virtually and three months late. Thanks again to everyone who helped with this campaign." 

Some of the largest donations of the night (not counting auction items) included $15,000 from the Cassner family/Cassner Foundation; $10,000 from Merchants National Bank; $5,000 each from First State Bank and the Rocky Fork Amvets; $3,925 from the Heartland/Senior Center Chili Supper fundraiser; $2,500 from NCB; $2,000 from Weastec; $1,500 from VFW Post 9094; and $1,000 each from Emily Davis, Peoples Bank, ITW Food Group (which includes Hobart) and the Rick and Robin O’Dell family. (Check back to highlandcountypress.com for more totals from the Society.)

“We will still be taking contributions from those who were unable to call in last night or may have forgotten about the event,” Coss said Thursday morning. “Checks should be payable to HCSCA and mailed to P.O. Box 258, Hillsboro or dropped off at First State Bank on Harry Sauner Road.

“With all of the challenges that our community and nation has faced due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a great result. Many past donors were unable to give this year or had to reduce their contributions, so the amount raised under these circumstances is a great blessing to the Society and the Highland County citizens it will be able to help in the next year.”

Even before the pandemic, the 2020 telethon was expected to bring changes, as First State Bank joined the rotation of banks hosting the event for the first time. Another difference was hosting the telethon at the Hillsboro Orpheum, as it is usually held at one of the area banks.

Although the in-person crowd was limited, there were still plenty of special and memorable moments, most notably at the end of the telethon. First State Bank president/chief executive officer Michael Pell was invited to the stage to read the winners of the night’s silent auction items, which included concert tickets, sports memorabilia, a Highland County YMCA membership and a trip to French Lick Resort.

Pell revealed that the bank won the auction for a replica Heisman Trophy signed by Archie Griffin, with a winning bid of $1,900.

“It’s been a tough match all evening to be the successful bidder, but First State Bank was happy to be the high bidder,” Pell said.

Pell said that Griffin “was the workhorse of the Buckeyes many years ago” and drew comparisons to Judge Coss, who has volunteered with the HCSCA and the Hillsboro Rotary Club for decades and is one of the primary organizers of the event. (Coss's wife, Gayle, has also served as the HCSCA director since 2005.)

“Our bank would like to say thanks to the workhorse that’s been in this organization,” Pell said, after inviting Coss to the stage. “What I’d like to do at this point in time is present Rocky Coss and Gayle with the replica of the Archie Griffin Heisman Trophy.”

Coss — who is an avid Ohio State Buckeyes fan — said he was “overwhelmed” with the gesture, although he showed his sense of humor in accepting the gift.

“We appreciate all the support you gave financially, but I was bidding on this for a while, and I feel bad that I ran you up,” Coss said, laughing. “This is just overwhelming. I can’t tell you how much respect I have for your organization, Mike, and what you’ve done through this. This has been through a really hard time.

“With what we’ve gone through, what the community’s gone through with so many people out of work, organizations and businesses that have lost revenue and had to lay off employees — we’ve still been able to raise this kind of money in a community of 43,000 people.”

The event’s emcees included Herb Day and Rick Williams, the usual hosts of the Hillsboro telethon, and Ron Coffey, who is president of the Greenfield Rotary Club. There was not an event held in Greenfield this year, as the clubs opted to host the virtual telethon as a combined event.

“We’re making history tonight,” Coffey said in the emcees’ opening comments.

In 2013, the event was named the Ernie Blankenship Radio-Telethon in honor of Blankenship’s long service as emcee and chairman of the Hillsboro Rotary Club committee. The telethon typically includes meeting with members of Blankenship’s family, who give the first donation of the night. Due to the restrictions on mass gatherings, the Blankenships were not in attendance, but Ernie Blankenship Jr. spoke with the emcees through a video call. He thanked Orpheum owner Dale Martin and First State Bank for hosting the event, as well as thanking the Rotary Clubs.

“This is definitely a challenging year with everything else going on,” Blankenship said. “I commend the Rotary Club for being able to have such an event that’s really important to the community.

“I was trying to think of different things that Dad would have come up with. I know he would have had fun figuring out the technology. He definitely would have had a lot of help, for sure. He always told us that difficulties like this give us an opportunity to overcome things.”

He also announced a $1,000 donation from the Blankenship family “to kick things off,” along with a $500 donation from Big Ernie’s Pizza.

“Ring the bell like Ernie would,” Williams told Coss, who did so for the first of numerous times Wednesday night.

Pell and the Hillsboro First State Bank banking center manager Diana Grooms were also introduced early in the telethon, as they spoke about being telethon hosts for the first time.

“It’s really been exciting,” Pell said. “This has been a great organization for 48 years, and we’re so happy to be a partner, where this money stays right here in Highland County.”

Day thanked the bank for their efforts in helping meet the challenges of organizing this year’s telethon.

“Even though COVID has definitely changed the way the dynamic is this year, we are just very thankful and blessed to be a part of this organization, especially for everything that it does for the county that we serve,” Grooms said.

“When an important cause comes before leadership, leadership comes together,” Pell added. “We’re so happy that we were able to partner with the Rotary Clubs, both in Hillsboro and Greenfield.”

Through a prerecorded video message, the bank introduced members of their banking center team and announced a $5,000 donation for the telethon.

At the beginning of the telethon, the emcees also thanked Martin, owner of the Hillsboro Orpheum, for the use of his building.

“It’s a true pleasure,” Martin said. “This is what this needs to be used for.

“I’m excited that we can keep this ball rolling. This is a wonderful, wonderful organization, and the telethon is dear to my heart.”

Martin, who said he was the Hillsboro Rotary Club president in 1990, reflected on Blankenship’s passion for the telethon.

“We did, I think, $19,000 the year before, and he told me ‘We’ve got to get in the 20s,’” Martin said. “We did $28,000, and everybody was so excited.”

In later years, Blankenship continued to push for higher and higher fundraising totals, including a record of $217,043 in 2007, Martin added.

Mat Greene also attended in person on behalf of the Hillsboro Rotary Club, donating $6,000 from the club.

“Rotary as a club is just happy to be able to participate, we’re happy to be able to send so many volunteers over, and we’re also happy to donate some of the funds that we raise throughout the year as well,” Greene said.

Although the poster child, Elisha Duncan was unable to attend in person, she and her mother, Kimberly O’Madden, also spoke via video chat during the telethon. Elisha, 8, was born with Down syndrome. The society helped her family with purchasing an iPad, which includes special apps for Elisha to use. (For more on her story, go to: https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/In-The-News/Article/HCSCA-Ernie-Blankenship-Memorial-Radio-Telethon-poster-child-introduced-new-venue-hosts-announced/2/20/55237.)

“Thanks for the donations and everything, everybody of Highland County,” O’Madden said. “I know it’s crazy, but we sure appreciate everything you do for all the kids and adults here in Highland County.”

“Thanks!” Elisha said.

Although there were technical difficulties that prohibited the hosts from speaking to her, former poster child Emily Davis also called in to the telethon. Davis’s grandparents — Day and his wife, Patty Day — spoke on her behalf.

Davis, whom Gayle Coss has referred to as “an angel,” has served as the poster child in 2011, 2016 and 2019 and has long been a cheerleader, advocate and fundraiser for the society. As her birthday falls in March, the usual month of the telethon, she has spent the past several years asking for donations to bring to the telethon in lieu of gifts.

“This year, we thought the telethon was going to be in March, on her actual birthday,” Mrs. Day said. “She was turning 14.

“On March 1, she developed pneumonia in both lungs and was admitted to Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati and actually spent nine days on a breathing machine and was very, very ill.”

On Emily’s behalf, Mrs. Day started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the 2020 telethon this March, since Emily was unable to do so in person due to her illness.

“I knew how important the society is to her,” Mrs. Day said. “I’m happy to say we were able, on the GoFundMe page, to raise $880 in her name.

“In addition, we were able, through family members and church family, to get an additional $120 in cash, for a total of $1,000 to be donated by Emily.”

Later in the evening, Richard Vanzant, who said he is in his 49th year at Rotary Forms Press, made one of the largest donations of the night from the Cassner Foundation.

“On behalf of John, Brian and Alice Cassner and the Cassner Foundation, I have a check for the society for $15,000,” Vanzant said. “They’ve been very supportive of a lot of different events and activities around Highland County.”

Williams asked Vanzant to tell “the Cassner family that we appreciate all their help.”

Other special videos were aired throughout the evening, including:

• A history of the Rotary Club and the Highland County Society for Children and Adults, read by several local Rotarians;

• A video discussing the annual Heartland of Hillsboro/Highland County Senior Center chili challenge fundraiser;

• Videos from Merchants National Bank, NCB, Peoples Bank, Wilmington Savings Bank and Coffey’s band Dumbfounded announcing their respective donations; and

• A video chat with Southern State Community College president Dr. Kevin Boys.

The emcees also spoke with John Barney of iHeart Radio and Nelson Hunter of WVNU, as WSRW 1590 AM, 101.5 FM and WVNU 97.5 broadcasted the telethon this year. Terry Mikkelsen of Tech-T Productions and his crew, along with James Scott of the Hillsboro Orpheum, were recognized for providing technical support throughout the evening.

Pell appeared on stage several times throughout the night. He thanked the First State Bank staff for their work to help organize the telethon, as well as to coordinate collecting funds throughout the night Wednesday.

“It’s really been a great opportunity for First State Bank to be a cohost of this great event,” Pell said. “It’s the first time for us, the first time this event has been virtual, and we’re so happy to partner with this great organization. Special thanks to my First State Bank team that’s really been meeting for many, many weeks, under Rocky’s leadership. We did have the drive-thru open, and we did accept donations at the drive-thru in the last couple hours.”

Before receiving the aforementioned gift from the bank, Judge Coss also appeared on stage later in the evening, as the emcees thanked him for his efforts in organizing the telethon.

“It’s unfortunate that we’ve had the problems with the COVID, and it’s affected our crowd, obviously,” Coss said. “We thank everyone in the community for reaching into their pockets.”

In addition to those already thanked during the telethon, on Thursday, Coss also thanked poster child Elisha Duncan and her mother, Kim O'Madden; Society Board members Ginger Cox and Lindsay Bennett for filing and processing the pledge cards; Charlie Guarino for entering donations into an Excel worksheet; and Richard Vanzant for printing the names of all of the donors.

“Finally, thanks to all of the individuals, groups, businesses and organizations who supported this fundraiser,” Coss said. “The Society could not exist without their generosity.”