Rock-a-thon still included in annual Relay for Life

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 12, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

Now merged with the Suffolk Cancer Society’s Walk America event, the Rock-a-thon that had humble beginnings in 1981, is rocking along in the 21st-century. This year the event will be held at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy on Friday May 16 beginning with the Survivors’ Walk at 7 p.m., and continue to 10 a.m. Saturday.

A small group that raised money by sponsoring a carnival in the early 1970s, agreed in 1981 to raise funds for the American Cancer Society in a new way. The group solicited pledges from individuals, based on the number of hours that volunteers would sit in a rocking chair and continue rocking, uninterrupted for 24 hours. The 22 participants that year all rocked for the entire time. Fortunately, they had the active support of David Carter and his sister, Caroline Wright, of Brandon House Furniture, who provided the window display area of their West Washington Street Furniture Store for the Rock-a-thon.


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Harriet Wills, who rocked for many years with her husband Curtis, and has participated almost every year, said, &uot;The initial Rock-a-thon was held in February, a cold time of the year to rock in an unheated window. Blankets had to be provided for the volunteers,&uot; she added jokingly, &uot;to keep them from succumbing to hypothermia.&uot; Despite the rigors of the effort, Wills said, the first group gathered the surprising sum of $4,300. She said, &uot;For the first several years, the individual who collected the most money was awarded a brand new rocking chair.&uot; Now, Wills displays a special chair that commemorates individuals who have succumbed to cancer.

Success bred success, and the number of rockers grew from year to year until there were over 75 rockers. Carter relocated the fund-raiser from his display window to the front area of the store. Then he hired a crew to move all the furniture in that part of Brandon House onto trucks to make way for the event. During each year’s affair there was a parade of entertainment for the rockers. In addition to local clowns, Miss Suffolk sang for the rockers, and area celebrities Catfish Hunter, Terry Zahn, and Joe Hopple made appearances. Carter laughed at the thought of his favorite- Wilson Milteer, who billed himself as &uot;The World’s Ugliest Man&uot;. Through a series of maneuvers, Milteer was able to pull his lower lip up over his nose – a grotesque but funny trick that delighted the rockers.

In 1997 the Rock-a-thon joined with the Relay for Life, and individual competition was switched to team competition. At the same time the combined event was switched to its current home at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy. Each succeeding year brought in more donations, culminating in a total of $242,000 in 2002. This year the goal is to give $250,000 to the American Cancer Society.

In planning for the 2003 event, Wills said that one of the high points of the affair will be the &uot;Illumination,&uot; which will be held at 9 p.m. Hundreds of luminaries, each bearing the name of a cancer victim will be lit around the track on the NSA ball field. &uot;To have a loved one memorialized on one of the paper bags, the minimum pledge is $10,&uot; she said.

To participate in the rocking, call 539-0503.

To participate in the walking, call 255-2828.

For any other interest or contribution, call 539-8789.