Whatever Happened To ... Eddie Meath Penny Fund?

Alan Morrell, Democrat and Chronicle…..March 26, 2016

 

The Eddie Meath Penny Fund was a fundraiser to buy toys for hospitalized kids in the Rochester area that was started by a longtime and beloved Rochester broadcaster.

The Penny Fund was best known for its annual Christmastime campaign that was promoted on WHEC TV (Channel 10). Meath, known affectionately as “Uncle Eddie,” anchored a morning talk show on WHEC, first on radio and then on TV. Meath encouraged viewers and listeners to send in their pennies and their “quiet money, too.”

That Christmastime promotion led to a misconception that the gift-giving was only during the Christmas holiday period; it was, in fact, year-round. That was one of several misconceptions.

Start with the name. Known colloquially as “the Penny Fund,” the effort was officially called the Ed Meath TV-10 Children’s Christmas Fund. Continue with the duration: While the organization hasn’t solicited or donated toys for years, the name and the effort remain ongoing in a different way.

Organizers now raise money through the annual Hot Stove League Luncheon, which benefits the Challenger Baseball World Series for kids and youths with disabilities.

“The objective has changed but the Eddie Meath Penny Fund is very much alive,” said Kevin Meath, president of the fund that bears his late father’s name. Eddie Meath died in 1981.

 “Now, we make 300 kids happy every year at the Challenger World Series,” Kevin Meath added. This year’s series is scheduled for June at Frontier Field. Another ongoing fundraiser is the annual Eddie Meath All-Star Football Game, which benefits Golisano Children’s Hospital.

For the purpose of this story, we’re looking back at what most people remember about the “Penny Fund.” For decades, people donated money through drives and events held at schools, stores, bowling halls, bars and elsewhere. Pennies made up a good chunk of the donations, and organizers talked of the fun but labor-intensive work involved with counting and rolling the coins.

Kids in one Wayne County school district, for example, once collected $300 in pennies and put them all on masking tape.

“Eddie told us he’d ask his guests to unstick pennies while they were waiting to go on (the air),” an official from Marion schools told reporter Betty Utterback in a 1982 Democrat and Chronicle story. “Around Christmas, it’s hard to find a penny in Marion. One year, the bank ran out.”

Another news story mentioned that the fund’s workers would roll $10,000 to $15,000 in change by hand each year. The way the money was raised was part of the fun. A Webster school, for instance, had a teacher who donned safety glasses and a plastic bucket atop his head and allowed students to pelt him with pennies. A ski shop filled a boot with pennies, a swimming league did the same with a bathing cap and patrons of a bar once filled a beer keg that turned out to be too heavy to lift once it was stuffed with coins.

Annual donations frequently exceeded $50,000. The money was used to purchase up to 15,000 toys that were distributed to children in as many as 19 area hospitals.

Meath started the campaign in 1963. He came up with the idea after visiting a local hospital and seeing the “threadbare” toys that children had to share as playthings. His on-air plea the next day reportedly led to lines of people at the WHEC studios who wanted to help.

Thus the “Penny Fund” began, along with, once again, the demonstration of generosity among Rochester-area folks. WHEC’s annual Christmastime promotion became, as Greg Boeck wrote in a 1989 Our Towns story, “a Rochester ritual embraced with the same kind of enthusiasm as opening day at the ballpark every April.”

Boeck called the Penny Fund “a gold mine of simple caring” for children who had a quick visit or a long stay at a hospital. A volunteer coordinator at Strong Memorial told him “The toys break the ice. Most come to the hospital frightened kids, but the gift makes them comfortable.” She added that she loved “playing Santa Claus every day.”

That story ran eight years after Eddie Meath died. His family assumed the leadership of the fundraising campaign, as they still do. Family members in 1982 expressed worries about what would happen to the fund, but people kept giving and hospitalized kids kept getting toys.

That ended in 1993. Donations had dwindled and the organization decided to stop the toy program. Meath’s death left the group without a “goodwill ambassador,” Kevin Meath said, and the focus shifted.

“We are no longer in the toy business, but we are definitely still in the children business,” he said in a Democrat and Chronicle story that December. And that continues to this day, through the Hot Stove League Luncheon and the Challenger Baseball World Series and more.

But those madcap days of school fundraisers and penny collections, of teachers getting pelted by pennies and bar patrons jamming an empty keg with coins, are over. Kevin Meath has his own memories, including when then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller visited Eddie Meath’s show and Meath had the governor remove pennies that were taped on paper.

“My father was the whole show,” Kevin Meath said earlier this month. As for his ongoing involvement, he said, “We just wanted to keep my dad’s name alive, to keep his enthusiasm going.”

Alan Morrell is a Rochester-area freelance writer.