13 at 65: Remembering 40+ years with MDA's "Love Network"

Published: Sep. 3, 2018 at 6:34 PM CDT
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For more than 40 years, Labor Day meant the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon on WIBW-TV.

While many people grew up watching it, Sarah Smith grew up on it - in front of the telethon cameras, starting when she was nine-years old until she was into her 20s.

"(I remember) the people - lots and lots of people," she said.

Sarah is living with neuromuscular disease. As MDA helped her and her family with medical expertise and experiences like summer camp, sharing their story at telethon and other events was a way to give back.

"People are needing a cure," Sarah said.

Her parents agree.

"It just opened a lot of doors for Sarah, and that inspired me to want to help more," her father, Mike, said.

"(You saw) all the people that you run into at the fundraising events throughout the year, and they just kind of remind you it was a day of hope," said her mother, Lisa.

It was hope - fueled by caffeine for a tireless crew that would transform places like the old White Lakes Mall, West Ridge Mall, a car dealership -- or even Topeka Harley Davidson into our home for the marathon broadcast.

Mike Patterson's uncle Dennis started the dealership's annual fundraising rides for MDA in 1980, when Mike was just 14.

"It was cool to be on this ride where there was a stretch of seven miles of motorcycles and it was a huge event," Patterson recalled. "As I grew older and became more involved in the business, I started to understand what it really was about. We were riding for people who couldn't ride. Helping the families and getting to know the kids, it almost became part of our family, and it was special to be able to make an impact on their lives."

Just like the TV crew, Labor Day was a standing date for the bikers.

"Every year, we'd bring a big group of bikes with us and always our signature thing to do was we would announce the amount of money and then everybody would start their bikes and rev their engines," Patterson said. "It was a signature moment for us every year was to rev up the engines!"

You could count on the Harleys -- and you could count on Beverly Bernardi and her dancers!

"It was what we did on Labor Day weekend. It was always what we did to raise money for those who could not dance, who could not perhaps walk," Bernardi said.

After only performing on the first telethon, Bernardi asked if they could raise money. They topped out at $2,387 in year two, but it only kept going up -- and their grand total is now more than $584,000 raised in all the years since.

The efforts earned national recognition - and though MDA ended the telethon broadcasts in 2014, Bernardi and her dancers don't stop.

"The patients are still there, the kids are still there - and there's just no reason why we can't use our talents and dance and keep it going," Bernardi said. "It might not be a national production now, but there's no reason we can't keep our portion going. We do it, the firefighters do it, other people do it - and it's here to stay in Topeka."

Because it stays in your heart - especially for all the telethon host. Former WIBW anchor Bob Murray did a few telethons with the likes of Kent Cornish, Jack Brier and Betty Lou Pardue.

"We had a live audience and we had a great time doing it," Murray said. "Before the telethon starts, you're meeting these people, you're doing stories about them, you're going to camp, you're doing all of these things, so by the time the telethon gets there, you're telling real stories and you're hearing them tell their stories and it's bound to tug at your heart strings.

For updates on some of the other people who would join us on MDA Telethon, including some we mourn, watch the included video.

Over the years, telethon hosts continue to keep in touch with families they've met. While we celebrate the successes, we also mourn with families and friends for those we've lost.

It's why Sarah and her family continue to share their story.

"There's still not a cure yet," Sarah says matter-of-factly.

It's why all of us who were part of MDA's Love Network still today offer the reassurance as Jerry Lewis did for so many telethon broadcasts - that you will never walk alone.