Lehigh Valley staff member reflects on THON, as a dancer and cancer survivor

Penn State students dancing - 1984

Penn State students learning the line dance “Let’s Go Dancing” by Kool and The Gang during “The Dance Marathon” (THON) 1984 held in the White Building.

Credit: Debbie Zuech-Smyrl

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — It’s nearly two months since the confetti fell in the final moments of THON, Penn State’s annual student-run dance marathon responsible for raising more than $200 million in funds to fight pediatric cancer over its lifetime.

Its effects, however, will live on in the hearts of many — from the countless families whose children will be helped by the research it supports to the thousands of Penn State students and volunteers who team up to tackle the unfathomable task lists required to hit their globally recognized goals.

Among those who walked away from that final crescendo with a sense of awe, and also, in this case, nostalgia, was Penn State Lehigh Valley’s (PSU-LV) own Debbie Zuech-Smyrl, the "right arm" of Chancellor Tina Richardson — and much-loved “mamma bear” to many, who, by all accounts — and by her family’s attendance record at football games — “bleeds blue and white.”

Nearly 40 years ago, as president of Centre Hall’s residence association, Zuech-Smyrl danced for 48 hours at "The Dance Marathon," as it was called back then, that evolved into today’s iconic fundraiser.

“It was held in the White Building — which was a little bigger than a gym that housed maybe eight rows of bleachers,” said Zuech-Smyrl. “I still remember the theme: ‘Help the Kids Smile, Dance for a While.’ I also remember how sore my feet were … and falling asleep while waiting in line at the bathroom.”

It was the 1980’s and Zuech (at the time) was a young woman with boundless energy and a selfless goal to join the fight against one of the world’s most damaging diseases. She was, she said, also blissfully unaware that decades later, she would be engaged in this battle on a much more personal level.  

“Two years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Zuech-Smyrl said. “I was in active treatment for 15 months — one sixtieth of my life. It’s such a small fraction when you look at the children this event supports. For them it’s 15, 20, sometimes 50 percent of their time on this earth spent fighting for their lives.”

With this in mind, Zuech-Smyrl was offered an opportunity to hit the dance floor again — representing PSU-LV at the 2023 THON.

“I was so excited to see the progression of the event and when I walked in – it just blew my mind,” she said. “The organization required to put this together is incredible — especially since it’s entirely student run! From the public-relations activities, entertainment production details, massive amounts of food provided, lighting and technical support, rest room cleanup, and security at the Bryce Jordan Center, to keeping up with the lost and found — these Penn Staters do an amazing job!”

Zuech-Smyrl also called attention to her colleagues from the PSU-LV campus who organized and escorted the student dancers and nearly 40 student fans for the event this past year.

“What Pam Fleck [assistant director of student affairs] and Joe Schwartz [transfer admissions counselor] did to get the bus up there and make sure everyone was fed for two days — even providing yoga mats for our fans in the bleachers to stand on … all that coordination. They are definitely unsung heroes!”

Zuech-Smyrl also said she loved learning the dance moves and the lyrics to this year’s THON line dance and reflected on how it compared to her first experience.

“In 1984, the traditional line dance played at the event each hour was just one song — “Let’s Go Dancing” by Kool and The Gang — accompanied by some basic, kind-of choreographed dance moves. Today’s version includes an entire playlist of 16 songs rewritten to reflect recent Penn State and world events and fads along with complicated student dance routines that were just incredible!”

But Zuech-Smyrl’s admitted she didn’t feel the full impact of the event until she stood at the wall of posters picturing Four Diamonds families, some with stories that ended happily, others not.

“I always knew it would be tough for these children, but now I have a deeper awareness of what chemo is like, the testing you go through. As an adult, I could ask questions and at least understand to some extent," she said. "These little kids … and the parents who watch their child go through this … the heart ache is so profound — especially for those who didn’t make it. There’s such a survival guilt for me — they are so young.”

Zuech-Smyrl said that students picked up on her emotions as she felt the weight of the wall — despite efforts to veil her tears. Several came over to rub her back, asking if she was ok. “These are the students I want to highlight every day at Penn State. It’s not just about the $15 million they raised this year — it’s the time and energy and genuine care that more than 16,500 student volunteers put into this event. This is the best of Penn State.”

Among those students was Zuech-Smyrl’s niece, Aubrey Zuech, a junior at University Park.

“I am so incredibly proud of Aubrey and her efforts to continue our family’s involvement in THON.  What a powerful legacy to share,” she said.

“The energy was tangible — from the pep rally with all the sports teams — football, wrestling, cheer squad, women’s lacrosse, soccer … to the live entertainment around the clock,” she said. “To be on the floor and see all the student fans and dancers — most especially our PSU-LV student group — was incredible. They deserved the hero’s welcome they received when they returned to campus early Monday evening. And to think this is done each year with almost all new students leading efforts each time!”

Zuech-Smyrl shared one last memory of the event.

"When I danced as a student, I asked Bob — who eventually became my husband — to join me, but he was worried about his bad knees. Thirty-nine years later, I finally got him on the floor. It was definitely worth the wait."