March of Dimes Lets John Finger Do the Walking to Raise Money

Times Staff Writer

John Finger isn't the sort of person who takes things sitting down.

When asked to donate to the March of Dimes' polio drive in 1948, the impoverished father of three took to the streets instead, mounting what is thought to be the first walkathon in the charity's history.

And he kept on marching for dimes, despite the fact that the charity did not formally institute its nationwideWalkAmerica drive until 1971.

Even after a stroke left one side of his body paralyzed a few years ago, Finger hit the fund-raising trail. In two separate one-mile walks that each took a grueling seven hours to complete, he has raised $2,832 in the past two years.

Last week, Finger, 71, had one more occasion to rise to his feet.

The self-described "walkaholic" was singled out for commendation at the 14th annual Carnation Awards Luncheon, sponsored Friday by the Volunteer Center of South Orange County in conjunction with the Carnation Co., Nordstrom and Beatrice/Hunt-Wesson Foods.

It took a couple of tries and some help from well-wishers, but Finger, who now spends most of his time in a wheelchair, managed to screw himself into a standing position to accept the accolades.

The 564 people who gathered at the Westin South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa responded with a standing ovation.

Then came the engraved silver bowl, the impromptu speech and the barrage of flashbulbs for the volunteer who managed to edge out 25 other nominees for "outstanding cumulative service."

The retired cab driver, whose second passion is chasing celebrities, appeared to enjoy the limelight.

"This is a lot of fun," Finger said. Then he asked organizers to fill his trophy--the engraved silver bowl--with ice cream. "Carnation ice cream," he said.

Dubbed "Mr. WalkAmerica" by the March of Dimes in 1983, Finger is credited with trudging more than 1,000 miles for the charity and earning $15,832 for the battle against birth defects in the 38 years since he introduced what would become a fund-raising staple.

The year was 1948, when polio was causing widespread concern. The father of three was earning 75 cents an hour spinning thread in a textile mill in High Point, N.C., when he made a decision that would change his life.

"My daughter, Marlene, came home from school and asked for some money for the polio drive," he recalled. "I said, 'I don't have any money, but I'll go out and walk to raise some.' "

So on a cold, January morning, Finger and his nephew Harry Ashwell Jr. set out for Greensboro. By the end of the 32-mile trek, the red wagon that they pulled behind them was brimming with donations.

Raised $1,700 in One Day

"I raised $1,700 that one day," he said. "That was a lot of money then and is a lot of money now."

Finger became so hooked on walking that when his church's milk fund needed money in 1949, he set out on a 110-mile hike between Washington and Richmond, Va., raising $800.

Finger then moved to California, found work as a cab driver in Downey and began participating in formal walkathons.

In what was to have been his swan song, Finger brought up the rear in the March of Dimes' walkathon last April in Huntington Beach by covering the final mile.

"Even though he's got a disability, he doesn't let things get him down," said Terry S. Salgy, the March of Dimes official who nominated Finger for the award. "He's a real inspiration."

It's a feeling shared by others.

Clocked Thousandth Mile

In 1983, for instance, TV's "PM Magazine" followed Finger to High Point, where he clocked his thousandth mile for the March of Dimes during a re-enactment of his first walkathon on the occasion's 35th anniversary.

Later that year, the Los Angeles Dodgers made Finger an honorary bat boy for a day. The California Angels acknowledged his accomplishments in a ceremony this summer at home plate. And in August, radio station KRTH-AM and KHJ-TV named him "Hometown Hero," a weekly distinction for a Southern Californian who has "acted courageously or selflessly to help others," said KRTH spokeswoman Carole Arciero.

"He is a character," Salgy said in describing Finger's personality. At the Carnation luncheon, for instance, he turned down the quiche in favor of a hamburger. "I won't eat anything I can't pronounce," Finger said. He's likely to voice approval with a resounding "amen!" or express displeasure with an equally vociferous "well, whoop-dee-do!"

Finger has a knack for attracting pledges from some of the 8,034 celebrities whose photographs he says he has collected.

Past sponsors have included Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, actress Meredith MacRae, actor Carroll O'Connor and former Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel.

'Daddy Said I Had Good Legs'

Finger's love for walking really began at age 7 when his father took him on a 20-mile hike. "My ankles swelled up on me, but I liked it, and my daddy said I had good legs, and he bragged on me so I thought I could do something."

So inspired was Finger that he tried out for the 1936 Olympics but missed making the walking team by 15 minutes, he said.

Why such devotion to the March of Dimes?

"I thought it was a good organization because it helped people to walk, and I like that word--walk."

Until recently, Finger maintained a stiff pace. For years, it was five or 10 miles a day with 20-mile-plus hikes every three or four months to keep in shape for the March of Dimes walkathons.

It was during a 23-mile hike from his East Broadway home in Anaheim to Hollywood in November, 1984, that he was felled by a stroke.

Spends Days on Couch

Now he spends most of his days sitting on a couch in front of a picture window, conserving energy for his daily 50-yard trek to the house of his son, Richard, 34, who lives next door.

"I'm a walkaholic who can't walk," he lamented. "I'd rather not be able to see than not be able to walk."

He also takes occasional visitors to the "museum" he has fashioned in the garage of the two-bedroom house that he shares with his wife, Gertrude, 75; their daughter, Marlene Neumann, 47, and her 10-year-old son, Eric.

There are photographs of Finger posing with "everybody but Elvis" (Finger managed to only obtain a mass-produced glossy of Presley), including Harlan Sanders, Minnie Pearl, Buddy Hackett, Tom Selleck, Jimmy Stewart, Jean Stapleton, Brooke Shields, Sally Struthers, Howard Cosell and Jimmy Durante, who many people say looked a lot like Finger.

Although last year's walkathon was supposed to have been his final fund-raiser, Finger acknowledged that he has changed his plans after Friday's event.

"I might try walking 1,000 yards," he said. "I'd have to walk a little bit, then stop to rest, and it would take me 10 hours. But if I could get somebody to sponsor me $5 a yard, that would be $5,000."

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