Journey to fit strip funding tiring for some

by Leslie Allen

It’s hard to know exactly where an idea is going to lead. In 1978, Rico Zenti, Jr., had an idea that would put exercise stations for chin-ups, sit-ups, leg stretches, and the like along a walking and jogging trail in Marquette.
Zenti took the idea to the city’s parks and recreation board, which led to radio station WDMJ, which led to a series of fundraising events for the Fit Strip. There was a dunk tank at the Marquette Mall, where—for a donation—folks could try to waterlog the mayor, the police chief, the city manager and others; a teen dance; an auction; and the sale of bumper stickers that declared: I’m a Fit Stripper.
Then there was the radio marathon. At noon on September 13, WDMJ disc jockey John Heller went on the air. He stayed on the air until noon on September 23, breaking the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous on-air broadcast. Except for five minutes of rest allowed each hour, Heller was awake and broadcasting for ten days—240 hours—straight. Through hourly pledges, more than $1,400 was raised for the Fit Strip.
The day before the marathon started, the twenty-two-year-old Heller was quoted in an article in the Mining Journal: “There is nothing inside me that says I can do it, and there is nothing inside me that says I can’t do it.”
Heller, now a software engineer, lives in Brookfield (Wisconsin), with his wife, Melodie. Together they have raised three daughters.
When remembering the marathon, Heller emphasizes the support he received from his co-workers.
“The unsung heroes of all this were the other people at the station,” Heller wrote in an e-mail exchange. “Normally, WDMJ was on the air 6:00 a.m. to midnight. During the marathon, we were a twenty-four-hour operation. Someone had to stay with me all the time, in case of a medical emergency or I decided I needed a brief nap. Also, Guinness required a witness to verify what was going on at all times.
“Skip Schneider, our morning announcer, and Tony Miller, who worked evenings, put in almost as many hours as I did. Others pitched in too—people from our sales department and some of the part-time announcers.”
He also remembers the people of Marquette and their support. At the time, WDMJ’s studios were at 815 West Washington Street, and there was a picture window facing the street—anyone could walk or drive by and see how Heller was holding up.
“For the first week of the marathon, Marquette barely took notice,” Heller wrote. “At least, that was my impression looking out of my window…By Day 8, you could feel the electricity beginning to build. Most people took a wait-and-see attitude, and as we got closer to the finish, the whole town seemed to go nuts.”
On Friday night, Day 9, things really began to happen.
“A belly dancer stopped by,” Heller wrote. “Old college buddies seemed to come out of nowhere to wish me success. My ex-girlfriend came by, but my pals Skip and Tony would not let her in the building. And the food just kept coming. As a bachelor, I really enjoyed the great food that so many local restaurants sent over.”
“At that time the radio station was a local station,” Schneider, now advertising manager at the Mining Journal, said. “[It was] very much a part of the community. We highly encouraged people to stop by and see him.”
Each day, a doctor checked Heller’s vital signs. An article in the September 17 Upper Peninsula Sunday Times reported that his blood pressure dropped from 134 over 80 on Day 1 to 110 over 90 on Day 4; that Heller was snacking on “carrots, celery and fresh fruit” and avoiding caffeine; that his eyes weren’t quite focusing; and that he admitted “my attention kind of drops on and off.
“The really great part is that for two years I have watched the cars drive by this window, and now, suddenly, I can see people looking back,” he said.
“John held up remarkably well,” Schneider said. “There were times he got a little…well, you could tell he was drifting.”
Heller remembers the great sense of camaraderie and teamwork from the whole staff.
“We were really winging this as it went along and everyone pitched in to make it work,” Heller wrote.
A newspaper article from September 20 confirms this. It reports on how, after three days, a large sink in the station’s basement was rigged up as a shower for Heller.
The record Heller was attempting to break was set at 222 hours and twenty-two minutes. That record fell on Day 9, and the Mining Journal sent over a reporter. She found Heller “looking handsome, but a bit rumpled.”
Co-workers told stories of Heller pointing at things that weren’t there, asking questions about boats that weren’t there, and becoming difficult to waken from his five-minute naps. On the other hand, according to the reporter, “Heller said he felt great and it wasn’t all that hard.”
“Finally, on Saturday, September 23, the marathon ended,” Heller wrote. “…I signed off at thirteen minutes after noon, in honor of Radio 13. I don’t remember much from that day. A policeman drove me home…”
Schneider said the mayor and city manager carried Heller out to a police car.
“The thing I remember most about the marathon was the people of Marquette,” Heller wrote. “I loved the city so much because everybody seemed to enjoy living there. Despite the brief summers and brutal winters, nobody complained. It was that spirit that made the marathon so much fun.”
So the next time you’re strolling along, jogging down or skiing the Fit Strip, which wanders through the wooded west end of Park Cemetery, stop and do a sit-up or leg stretch and think about how it came to be—how it was just an idea and how people got behind it. And as well, think about this:
“The most important thing about the marathon didn’t happen while I was on the air,” Heller wrote. “It happened in two parts, one before the record-breaking broadcast, the other after.
“[I was at the] dunk tank at the Marquette Mall. I remember this one young woman tried to dunk someone. She didn’t have much of an arm, but I was captivated the moment I first saw her. After the marathon was over, we had a party to celebrate the successful fundraising. I arranged to meet her at this party. I’m glad I did. That was Melodie.”
You just never know where an idea might lead.

— Leslie Allen

Editor’s Note: Less than a month after Heller broke the longest on-air broadcasting record, a disc jockey in Tulsa (Oklahoma) stayed on the air for 250 hours, setting a new record. Heller called to congratulate him.

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