CINCINNATI — For years, alumni of a Cincinnati-area high school have gathered to raise scholarship money in memory of three classmates killed in a crush of people at a 1979 concert by The Who. And they were determined to do it again in 2020 — despite the pandemic.
They just didn't know how.
But with the help of their friends — including two famous ones — they had their most memorable evening yet.
Fred Wittenbaum, one of the organizers of the fundraiser, said he and others had kicked around "some strange ideas" for the benefit, normally held over the past decade in the Finneytown High School performing arts center.
In the end, Saturday night's show included prerecorded video interviews with The Who's frontman Roger Daltrey and guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend, plus a mix of recorded and live discussions with relatives of the 11 people killed on Dec. 3, 1979.
There were also plenty of covers of the Rock & Roll Hall of Famers' music, such as "The Kids Are Alright" and "Behind Blue Eyes." They were performed by alumni rock bands, and taped in a park along the Ohio River and at other scenic venues in and around Cincinnati.
The P.E.M. Foundation set out to fund three $5,000 scholarships each year for Finneytown students who plan to study the music or other arts. Aging alums had wanted their schoolmates to be remembered and decided that the tragedy "could be turned into something that was a living memorial," Wittenbaum said.
Boosted by a visit from Daltrey in 2018 to the Finneytown High memorial, where he signed a guitar, albums, books and other items for auction, they raised enough last year for four scholarships.
This year, they have raised $25,000 and counting with payments still coming in from an online auction of a variety of donated items.
The show, livestreamed on Facebook, had a new, global reach. Wittenbaum said it was viewed in 29 countries, including Brazil, Germany and Malaysia. And it enabled Ellen Preston Motohashi to speak from Japan about her late brother, Stephan Preston, the "P" in P.E.M.
Wittenbaum, choking up, unveiled a new plaque at the Finneytown memorial listing all 11 who died. One of the evening's participants was Kasey Ladd, the son of Teva Rae Ladd, the oldest of the victims. She was 27 and her son was just 2 years old at the time.
The stars, of course, were Daltrey and Townshend, who spoke in separate interviews about how the tragedy has haunted them. The crush — in which another two dozen people were injured — was blamed on the Cincinnati venue's first-come seating, and the band wasn't aware of it until the end of their show.
The band scheduled a show this spring that would have been its first performance in the Cincinnati area since 1979, but had to cancel because of the pandemic. Daltrey pledged they will be back, with proceeds to benefit the scholarship foundation.
"We will definitely be there for you as soon as we're allowed," Daltrey said, calling the scholarships "such a positive thing," a catharsis.
"It's something that never ever goes away," Townshend said. "You never stop thinking about it … young people, really young kids. The idea just of making this awful thing into something really, really great, which is to provide scholarships, is brilliant."
The foundation organizers will now look ahead, to the band's return concert and the format for next year's show.
Walt Medlock, an organizer who narrowly escaped injury in the 1979 disaster, quoted one of Townshend's lyrics, from the song "1921": "Got a feeling '21 is going to be a good year."