It was the early 1970s, the beginning of sixth grade in Arizona, and Labor Day weekend. I turned on the television and there was Jerry Lewis hosting something I had never seen before; a telethon. Now, before you think that I was locked in the closet as a child, or as my friend Kevin would say “raised by wolves,” we did in fact have only three channels in Anchorage in the 1960's.
OK, so we were a little behind the times, but we made up for it by enjoying the only true blue skies I have ever known and having the advantage of living in igloos.
At the beginning of summer, my dad would hide the cord to the television. He always said “fresh air and sunshine are good for kids”, but what he really meant was “kids are not to be seen nor heard.”
As long as my brother and I couldn’t watch television, there was nothing else to do but play outside … which explains why I had never seen the Jerry Lewis Telethon before that particular year, which is in all actuality The Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon, but I know it, as I know it.
Since sixth graders are kind of clueless, at least I was, there was a lack of understanding as to what the telethon was really about, which was Jerry’s mission to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy research, and to bring awareness to a disease that I had no knowledge of. I think I was in high school by the time the light bulb came on.
The fact is, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, there are more than 30 types of various genetic diseases which cause the progressive weakness referred to as Muscular Dystrophy.
There is no known cure, only advanced therapies, relief for the symptoms, and continued scientific research in hopes of not only finding prevention, but finding a cure. Typically, this disease begins in infancy. The numbers as to how many are affected are not clear to me, because there are so many different types.
Before I lose you in quotes and statistics, let me just say that out of the 30 different types of MD, two types alone affect 400 to 600 boys a year in the United States.*
Taking into account the population of the United States you might consider this a small number; but like I said, this includes only two types of Muscular Dystrophy and if your child or my child was born with this disease, I would think that we would all agree that this is in fact, one child too many.
So in 1952, a staff member who worked on the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’ edition of the Colgate Comedy Hour pleaded with Jerry to help. And Jerry did. His first of many short telethons was in 1952, and that grew into a yearly Labor Day Weekend 19-hour telethon beginning in 1966 which grew into a 21 1/2-hour telethon through 2010. Jerry tirelessly gave of himself for a cause he believed in. As of 2009, he helped to raise 2.45 billion since the inception of the telethon.**
Progress many times starts with one person, wanting something better, wanting to help. I believe that education, research, and awareness are key; whether it be for cancer, autism, peripheral neuropathy, depression … just fill in the blank.
It has been 38 years since I learned of Muscular Dystrophy and Jerry’s work. While many things have remained the same, Jerry Lewis has made a difference in ways large and small in many of our lives. He was a man that didn’t just talk the talk but he walked the walk, even if wearily at times.
I keep this quote on my refrigerator as a reminder that it only takes one person with a passion to make a difference:
“I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” Jerry Lewis.
* Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, July 27, 2005
**"Jerry Lewis is still going the distance", http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-0903-jerry-lewis-20100903,0,794457.story, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 3, 2010, accessed September 3, 2010