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United Way volunteers put fun in fundraising

November 11, 2007|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

WASHINGTON COUNTY - James G. Piern, now chairman and chief executive of one of Hagerstown's largest banks, has worn many hats over the years.

But it was the day he donned a pith helmet that stands out in the history of fundraising for the United Way of Washington County.

"He wore a pith helmet and the shorts and the whole bit," recalled Kathy Vogt Hall, who served as chief ringleader (aka executive director) for the local United Way chapter from 1992 to 2000.

Then there was the year Ross Rhoads, then general manager of Mack Trucks' Hagerstown plant, dressed up as a cheerleader - cute skirt, pompoms and all.

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And the year Jim Deaner, the executive director of the Hagerstown Boys & Girls Club, popped the zipper on his new pink chiffon gown.

Fun and merriment.

It's the United Way!

At least that's how it's been for the past couple of the five decades the United Way has been raising money here for the up to 25 nonprofit agencies it benefits.

"If you don't have fun and you don't have enjoyment and you don't have success, you won't have your volunteers. And volunteers are what makes the United Way run and makes the United Way successful," said former Executive Director Betsy Wilson Day.

"One thing about United Way volunteers," Hall said, "they're willing to do anything for the community. These professional people, they didn't think, 'I wear a suit to the job.' They were willing to be silly to raise money for the community. That says a lot."

And over the course of its 50 years here, the strategy and the hilarity has worked. The organization has raised nearly $50 million since it launched its first community campaign on Nov. 7, 1957.

For instance, take the time Patrick Flickinger - now manager of Susquehanna Bank's Frederick Street branch in Hagerstown - arrived at his first United Way meeting.

There at the time as the lone representative from First National Bank of Maryland, the young Flickinger knew only that he was among volunteers who were supposed to "dress up," but as what, in what, he hadn't a clue.

Meet Mr. Banana.

According to Jenny Fleming, who now is United Way's community building and marketing director, Flickinger was one of the volunteers she had chosen to dress up as animals to liven up a meeting.

Fleming, who has been on the organization's staff since 1998, said the event, the year it was held uncertain, was a luncheon at which a fundraising report was to be given. "Instead of just coming out and saying, 'OK, we're at 50 percent of goal,' they wanted to have some fun."

Enter four or five local businessmen.

"They were dressed up as a lion, a panda bear, a gorilla, a banana," Fleming recalled with a laugh. "It was just funny. I had to go backstage to get them organized and they were back there, just sparring each other.

"The banana was Patrick Flickinger. He was a good sport. I was wondering who we could get to dress in that because you had your face showing. The other costumes didn't show the face."

Reference to the incident still gives the 35-year-old Flickinger a red face. You can tell, even over the phone.

"I can't believe it," he said. "I can't remember I was the only one whose face showed. ... Great!"

The experience hasn't deterred him from helping United Way. Over the years, he has served on the United Way board and has headed its campaign at his branch for many years.

But from being its top banana that one year when "I basically didn't know what I was doing," he did learn a key lesson: "From that point forward," he said with a laugh, "I made exactly sure I knew what I was doing."

'Wild and crazy thing'

Then there was 1993, when Deaner was at a United Way meeting and he volunteered to become a star.

"We were doing a 'Wheel of Fortune' thing and somebody needed to be Vanna White and I said, 'I can do that,'" Deaner recalled. "I thought I had good-looking legs."

So what's a 6-foot, 1-inch guy, weighing 210 pounds, to wear?

"It was real difficult finding a dress that actually fit," he said.

"I think I got it from Goodwill, but, actually, when we zipped it up and I moved, something in the back popped and we ended up pinning it. It was a wild and crazy thing."

A lot of people seem to remember the 1992 campaign when Hall, as executive director, spent nearly a full week, 24 hours a day, in the bitter cold of January 2003 on a billboard high over Dual Highway near the McDonald's in a bid to raise money.

The idea, Hall says now, came to her one day late in the campaign while she and others were sitting around the office, worried because the fundraising was going so slow.

"I said, 'Let's do something very odd.' I said, 'How about if we go out on a ledge?'"

And so, they did.

In the third week of January "in sleet and cold and 20-degree weather," Hall climbed the ladder on a Hagerstown firetruck to a billboard donated by United Way volunteer Doug Wright.

With her each night went Deaner or another volunteer. There was a tent up there, but Hall recalled no heater and no sleeping - only phone calling to try to raise money ... and shivering.

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