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CP Telethon has come a long way in 66 years

By Ben Rodgers

ALLOUEZ – CP has existed in many forms since the first telethon 66 years ago.

From dealing exclusively with cerebral palsy in an old frame house downtown, to now serving 2,100 families a year with four distinct programs at multiple locations, no one has seen more of that radical change than Bert Liebmann.

In nearly 50 years, Liebmann has worn every nearly every hat the nonprofit offers, from the board of directors, Telethon chair to dedicated volunteer.

Bert Liebmann

“When you see the work that’s been done by the staff and by the volunteers, and you see all the people who have been affected one-by-one, I don’t know how anyone could not get excited about it,” the 77-year-old Premontre High School graduate said.

Liebmann was hooked from his first Telethon at a young age when as a Cub Scout he provided security for the Telethon and the big star in town, James Arness, who played Marshall Dillon on “Gunsmoke.”

Back then CP didn’t exist as it does today. Its efforts were part of the national organization United Cerebral Palsy, which it split from in 1978.

“Our Telethon here was very successful,” Liebmann said. “There were others around the country that were very successful, but the national organization wanted a national telethon a-la Jerry Lewis and MDA. They were pushing very hard, to the point where they threatened to disaffiliate us if we didn’t go along with their choice. There was a meeting of UCP folks from all over the country, pretty sure it was in New York City, and I was there. The pressure was coming from the national chair, who also was the CEO of ABC news, or the ABC network, Leonard Goldenson. Those New York television executives are accustomed to getting their way, so they weren’t very happy when we said we weren’t going to do it.”

Liebmann also knew the residents of the Green Bay area wouldn’t support a new national telethon because of when they wanted to air it.

“We told them there was no way on earth that Green Bay was going to preempt TV viewers with the Super Bowl or NFL playoffs, I don’t remember which one it was, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer and we wouldn’t take yes for an answer, so we disaffiliated,” he said.

Thanks to Wisconsin’s Fair Dealership Act, Liebmann said the local group was able to disaffiliate and keep its assets.

The Telethon leaned on local celebrities who also happened to be heroes across the country.

“The thought was we weren’t going to be able to get any talent, and we didn’t have a producer, we weren’t going to have one of these New Yorkers to put the show together,” Liebmann said. “But what they didn’t reckon on was that the folks at WBAY had a great depth of experience, so some of those folks became the producers along with our executive director.”

Bart and Cherry Starr and Ray and Jackie Nitschke were involved as the local organization started to expand its reach.

“Ray and Jackie were both very active, but Ray’s shirt, his number was 66, and the first time we found a building that would replace that little frame house was at 1066 Mather St., so that seemed a signal from God or something,” Liebmann said. “CP bought that building; the other half had been a drug store. A couple of years later we bought a dental office and expanded it. Fifteen or 20 years later, we outgrew that. We were scouting around.”

Now CP operates out of a sprawling campus on Webster Avenue and has locations in the Fox Cities and the lakeshore.

The group also plans to open a childcare facility this summer in Suamico.

The driving impetus for the growth couldn’t be possible without CP Telethon.

“It’s a different world now, but still the Telethon, both as a local tradition and as a broadcast medium that supports a local organization here, makes sure folks within 100 miles or so know CP is available,” Liebmann said. “Not just for people with a particular condition of cerebral palsy, but for all sorts of challenges.”

Now as the country’s longest running local telethon, the event showcases the community while supporting an organization which improves the lives of many in the region.

“In a nutshell, we help individuals with special needs from six weeks old to seniors,” said Callie Sherman, CP director of philanthropy. “What happens here is really a result of hard work and perseverance from clients and staff, and what that looks like is people realizing goals that sometimes they never thought would be possible, whether it’s physical, cognitive or learning.”

There is an inclusive day care where children learn and grow next to those with challenges, there is an adult day service program to help with independence, there’s an aquatic center with pools kept at 92 degrees, allowing clients mobility, and there is a therapy services department with multiple goals.

“I come to work smiling every day and I leave in a better mood than when I come in, because it’s not about what people can’t do here, but it’s about what people can do, and what they bring to the community,” Sherman said.

This year’s Telethon airs on WBAY from 6:30-10 p.m. Saturday, March 7, and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, March 8.

People can give to support CP and the work it does by going online to cptelethon.org, texting CP Telethon to 41444 or calling 1-877-711-7830.

Press Times Publisher Patrick J. Wood will discuss the newspaper during the first 30 minutes of the telethon Saturday.

People who donate $25 or more during that time can receive a complimentary three-month subscription to The Press Times.

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