SALT LAKE CITY — Tucked in between a car dealership and a sports bar on the quiet side of downtown Salt Lake City, the five-story brick office building is as unpretentious as it is unassuming.
Commuters zip past the corner of 200 West and 700 South with nary a glance at the sign that identifies the occupant as Children’s Miracle Network.
Nothing about the place shouts, “Look at me” — certainly nothing to boast that housed inside is a charity that since 1982 has raised $7 billion to care for sick kids at children’s hospitals all across America.
That's $7 billion!
That’s an average of $200 million every year; $4 million every week; $550,000 every day; $23,000 every hour.
For 35 straight years.
The story of how this made-in-Utah, stayed-in-Utah patron saint of children’s health care came to be is full of big-time names: companies like Walmart and Disney, Marriott and Delta; celebrities the likes of John Schneider, Marie Osmond and Bob Hope; athletes from Merlin Olsen to Bo Jackson to Steve Young.
But none of it happens, not a single dime gets raised, if not for two Utah guys you probably never heard of named Mick and Joe.
The two started out with nothing but a good dose of stubbornness and a grand idea.
• • •
Mick Shannon and Joe Lake first met in Salt Lake City in 1978. Shannon had just moved to Utah from Boise, where he had spent five years as head of the Idaho branch of the March of Dimes. Just 29 years old, he’d been tapped to take over as director of Utah’s chapter of the venerable charity that was organized in 1938 to find a cure for polio and, that accomplished, now focused on birth defects.
Among the fundraising assets Shannon inherited from his predecessor, Bruce Hanks, was a round-the-clock television telethon that aired once every January. A member of the telethon committee was one Joseph G. Lake.
The telethon was a huge success. Thanks to free satellite use and airtime donated by KSL-TV and an enthusiastic response from the local community, every year it brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Mick Shannon’s grand idea was to make it a national broadcast so it could bring in millions.
In 1982, after producing yet another successful local show, Shannon and Lake flew to New York City to pitch the plan at March of Dime headquarters. Impressed by the presentation, the charity’s leaders agreed to give a national telethon a try, but insisted it be produced out of Los Angeles — and by somebody else.
What the two men from Utah did next defied all common sense and logical thought.
They said, "OK then, we’ll do it ourselves."
Even 35 years later, with plenty of time to think up a rational, coherent answer, neither Shannon nor Lake is able to easily explain what possessed them to abandon working with an established charity and jump off such a cliff.
“I don’t know why, exactly; passion for our cause I guess,” stammered Shannon on a recent afternoon when he posed for a photograph with Lake at the building on 700 South.
“I don’t know,” said Lake, starting his explanation the same as Shannon. “I think the main thing is we just had this strong belief that we could make a real difference.”
Whatever their reasoning, as they flew home from New York, they still had their telethon, they just didn’t have any backing anymore to run it.
• • •
The night he got back to Salt Lake City, Shannon, unable to sleep, went into his den and started writing down ideas. By the time he was finished, wadded up paper was all over the room. But he had the basics of a plan: their new enterprise would put kids first and every penny raised would go to the local children’s hospital where it was collected. And he had a name.
He called Lake.
“Our March of Dimes telethon slogan was Make a Miracle Happen,” he said. “I’ve decided we will be the Children’s Miracle Network.”
They brought different skills to the table. Shannon was born in Iowa but spent his teenage years in west Texas, where he was shaped mightily by — what else? — high school football. He was a backup halfback for the Big Spring High School Steers, where he learned “great principles in terms of teamwork, perseverance, never giving up no matter what.”
He left home the day he graduated, enrolling at what was then Ricks College in Idaho, and after that at Brigham Young University in Provo, graduating in 1971 with a degree in history and political science. He planned to teach high school history, but a lack of attractive offers sent him to the BYU job placement center for a plan B, which is how he learned about the March of Dimes job in Idaho. He moved to Boise, put 270,000 miles on his Toyota Corolla in five years, and found out he was good at raising money. Very good. When Bruce Hanks retired, Fred Ferre and Sherry Shelton of the Utah March of Dimes board came after him hard to come south to Salt Lake City.
As often happens when a new leader takes over, 36-year-old Joe Lake, one of the driving forces behind Utah’s March of Dimes telethon, figured a changing of the guard might mean the end of his involvement. Not that he would have stopped volunteering. Jumping into causes, working for no monetary reimbursement, was what Lake did. After graduating from East High School in 1960, the Salt Lake native had served two years on a Mormon mission to Scotland and Ireland. Then, before and after getting his degree in business and finance at the University of Utah, he worked as a volunteer for Sherm Lloyd’s congressional campaign, followed by Jake Garn’s senate campaign. In addition, he volunteered with the national Young Republicans, which led to a 2 1/2 year nonpaid gig working as a national advance man for President Richard Nixon, a duty he was able to mix in and around his successful life insurance business.
By the time Shannon moved to Salt Lake City in 1978, Lake had also added “talent scout” to his resume. For his insurance company Christmas party one December, he’d booked a local singing group called Sun, Shade and Rain. “Hey, you guys are good!” he exclaimed as he paid them their $15 appearance fee at the end of the night and asked if they had anyone representing them. They said no, so he volunteered to become their agent. The next thing Dan Lindstrom, Mel Teeples and Jeff Gregerson knew, they were booked in Reno, Tahoe and Vegas, as Lake discovered the connecting talents he’d already honed in the insurance business and in politics worked even better in show business — prompting the March of Dimes, among others, to beg for his services.
For all the reasons creating a new national charity in 1982 shouldn’t work, the reason it might work was the combination of Lake’s ability to cement relationships and Shannon’s skill at planning and management.
• • •
To get off the ground they needed two things: one, a prominent national host, or hosts; two, an actual charity.
Enter John Schneider, Marie Osmond and the Osmond family. It’s difficult in 2017 to project just how big a deal John Schneider was in 1982. He’s still, at 57, very much a star, but in the ’80s everyone knew his name. He had a string of country music hits, four of them No. 1s, and as Beauregard “Bo” Duke on “The Dukes of Hazard,” he was the star of the No. 2 rated TV show in America (right behind “Dallas”).
Shannon and Lake knew, from public acclaim, that Schneider was famous. They also knew, from personal experience, that he had a big heart.
In 1979, the year “The Dukes of Hazard” made its debut, Shannon had asked Lake if there was any way he could get Schneider to come to Utah for the March of Dimes’ annual Walk America fundraiser. Lake and his Rolodex worked their magic and, through his manager, Schneider agreed to come — for a $5,000 appearance fee.
In just one day, the 19-year-old Schneider saw virtually the entire state of Utah as Shannon got Chopper 5 to helicopter him into and out of various counties, where he was mobbed by teenage girls. As Schneider went to get on the airplane to return to Los Angeles, Lake pressed a check for $5,000 into his hand.
“Wait a minute,” he said, “This was a charity thing wasn’t it?” And with that he tore up the check.
After that, the March of Dimes organization in New York, impressed by Schneider’s star power and selflessness, made him their national celebrity. They used a photo of him with Marci Lake, Joe’s daughter, and R.J. Shannon, Mick’s son, on billboards and put his picture on Big Gulp cups and displays in 7-Eleven stores all across the country.
Such were the circumstances when Shannon and Lake, days after being shot down by the March of Dimes in New York, drove to Los Angeles to see if they could talk Schneider into being their celebrity host.
To their pleasure, and astonishment, Schneider picked up the phone while they were watching, called the March of Dimes and resigned. He was all theirs.
Back in Utah, Shannon and Lake went straight to Osmond Lane in Orem, home at the time of the enormous Osmond Studios (it’s now a drug and alcohol rehab center). Over tuna fish sandwiches made by Suzanne Osmond, Alan Osmond’s wife, Mick and Joe sat at Alan Osmond’s kitchen table and asked the Osmonds for two things: One, could they use their enormous studio for the telethon, and two, would Marie Osmond, who was riding her own considerable wave of fame, consent to being a co-celebrity host with Schneider?
Alan said yes to the studio and when they got 22-year-old Marie Osmond on the telephone, she said yes also.
Then they got a bonus: a charity.
It turned out George and Olive Osmond had established a foundation for two of their children who were deaf called the Osmond Foundation for the Children of the World. That’s the nonprofit entity that evolved into the Children’s Miracle Network.
Armed with celebrity hosts, a TV studio and KSL’s satellite uplinks and satellite time — all at no cost — the brand new Children’s Miracle Network was incorporated on May 15, 1982.
• • •
Shannon and Lake set up their headquarters in office space donated by Salt Lake’s Brighton Bank and went to work — for no pay. Within eight months they’d maxed out their credit cards. That’s when Gary Sheets, the financier who was the Children's Miracle Network's first chairman of the board (the same Gary Sheets whose wife would die in 1985 at the hands of notorious forger and bomber Mark Hofmann), wrote out personal checks to each man for $15,000.
Sheets’ largesse was just one of many timely “miracles” that kept the charity afloat. Bill Marriott of Marriott Hotels agreed to supply free hotel rooms. Linda Dozier of Western (now Delta) Airlines agreed to provide free airfare. Brett Hutchens, CEO of a chain of Midwest restaurants called Duff's Smorgasbord, stepped forward with a $150,000 check to underwrite the cost of the first telethon in 1983.
Two huge names in show business, Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension, whose hit song “Up, Up and Away” gave the charity its balloon logo, and Utah’s own Merlin Olsen, the perennial all-pro NFL lineman before turning to acting in “Little House on the Prairie,” agreed to emcee that inaugural telethon. No end of celebrities, along with Marie Osmond and Schneider, signed up to appear on the show.
The first telethon aired on 30 TV stations around the country representing 22 children’s hospitals. It raised $4.7 million.
It was a huge number at the time. But it was just the beginning.
As it turned out, a cause whose one and only agenda was “For The Kids” had a certain magnetism to it. The concept of 100 percent of the money staying local (what gets raised in Rochester stays in Rochester, and so forth) proved to be especially compelling. In Salt Lake City, the Primary Children’s Hospital — the inspiration in the first place for selecting children’s hospitals as the charity’s beneficiaries — soon realized there was no downside to getting a check every year with no strings attached.
Each year, more hospitals, and more TV stations, jumped aboard. Celebrities in show business and sports were drawn to the cause, volunteering both with their checkbooks and their time. Steve Young, after hearing about the network while sitting next to Shannon on an airplane, was an early supporter, along with Bo Jackson and Drew Bledsoe and numerous other NFL players. Bob Hope, at the personal request of Marie Osmond, gave his endorsement.
Major sponsors were quick to respond. Disney was an early signup — Michael Eisner personally took Joe Lake’s call — and soon insisted on hosting the telethon free of charge at a place even larger than the 110,000-square-foot Osmond Studio: Disneyland. Later, Disney relocated the show to its even more sizeable property at Disney World in Florida.
Walmart signed up on the personal handshake of Sam Walton, who promised Shannon as they drove in his pickup truck in Bentonville, Arkansas, “Our people will amaze you.” Instead of merely writing a check, Walton’s vision was to have Walmart’s vast family of associates brainstorm ways to raise money, resulting not only in the company’s annual in-store drives that over the years have collected hundreds of millions for the cause, but also in creating a fundraising model for all of the Children's Miracle Network’s partners to follow.
Perhaps no anecdote better illustrates the ecumenical spirit that permeates the network than the one about Costco joining in 1989. Dr. Ben Carson, the future presidential candidate, was on the board of Costco as well as a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, where he saw firsthand the good Children's Miracle Network was doing in the area of children’s health care.
Carson contacted Shannon, suggesting Costco should get involved. The problem was, Children's Miracle Network had an exclusivity agreement with Walmart and its Costco competitor, Sam’s Club. Still, at the next network board meeting, Shannon felt he should at least mention Costco’s interest, at which point Don Soderquist, vice president of Walmart, interrupted and said, “Wait a minute, we can’t keep them out. If they want in, we’ve got to let them support kids.”
Costco has been in ever since.
And so “America’s Charity” has evolved and progressed. Every day, somewhere, someway, donations are being collected “For The Kids.” It might be a campaign organized by IHOP or Dairy Queen of Remax or any of the charity’s 97 corporate partners; it might be a dance marathon at one of 350 participating colleges and universities; it could be an online video game competition; or a drive fueled by the more than 100 celebrities aligned with Children's Miracle Network.
The one thing it won’t be, ironically, is a telethon. The round-the-clock singing-and-dancing extravaganzas have faded out of style, done in by too many TV stations and changing entertainment preferences. The final Children's Miracle Network telethon aired in 2012, a year after Shannon retired as the network’s CEO, replaced by John Lauck, who brought with him years of successes working in the private sector.
Lauck inherited a thriving organization that the nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator consistently awards a four-star rating, the top grade possible. Today, 170 children’s hospitals located in every state of the union boast membership in the Children’s Miracle Network, each one a recipient of 100 percent of the monies raised in the area it services.4 comments on this story
As has always been the case at the charity, every year the donation numbers keep going up. Lauck’s stated goal is to hit the $1 billion-a-year mark by the year 2022, because, as the CEO said, “The need is always for more.”
And Shannon and Lake? They’re retired now. Still living in Utah. Still out of the limelight. About as noticeable as the five-story brick office building on the quiet side of downtown that houses the charity they started 35 years ago.
And $7 billion later, their miracle is going stronger than ever.