Sixty years ago, a group of Classen High School sophomores entered Mary Pruitt’s geometry class expecting another dry lecture on shapes, angles and planes. Instead, their teacher posed one question: What would a million of something look like? That simple query set her students on a quest, one that would resonate with them for the next six decades.
“We really couldn’t imagine a million of anything,” recalls Linda Kennedy Rosser, one of Pruitt’s students. None of the teens could say for certain that they’d ever seen a million of anything all in one place. When Pruitt told a story of some Wisconsin teens who’d gathered a million pennies as a fundraising drive, her students decided they’d do the same—in the span of a single year. So on Feb. 8, 1954, the “Million Penny Round-Up” was born.
The teens realized that even though they’d be collecting pennies, their efforts would net a lot more than chump change. So they earmarked the $10,000 they’d collect for two causes. First, they’d pay tribute to Jackie Wright, a former classmate who had died of cancer by landscaping a courtyard in her memory at Oklahoma City’s brand new Northwest Classen High School, where many of the Classen sophomores would transfer and eventually graduate. They decided that the remaining funds would go to cancer research at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, where Wright had spent the last days of her life.
Jackie Wright dreamed of a singing career. A student at Taft Middle School, the outgoing girl with the beautiful voice sang at every opportunity, endearing herself to her classmates.
A bone cancer diagnosis derailed Wright’s dreams when she was in ninth grade. The disease progressed quickly, and students organized prayer vigils during the school day. Wright applied for and gained admission to Classen High (now Classen School of Advanced Studies) for her freshman year, but her illness prevented her from ever setting foot inside the school.
When Wright’s condition worsened, her doctors sent her to the OMRF research hospital. Opened in 1952, the hospital specialized in administering experimental treatments to patients with cancer.
For Oklahomans, OMRF’s hospital was a godsend, a place where the sickest patients received the newest, most innovative cancer treatments available. “We all knew about OMRF and its hospital,” says Mary Thompson Denman, a classmate of Wright’s who served as secretary for the Million Penny Round-Up. “It was brand new, and we all thought it was incredible to have a cancer research hospital here in Oklahoma City.”
At the research hospital, Wright’s friends would congregate for hours at her bedside, trying to boost her spirits. Pruitt tutored her through a homebound student program sponsored by Oklahoma City Public Schools.
Wright spent three months at OMRF. In spite of her physicians’ best efforts, they could not slow her cancer, and Wright died on Nov. 7, 1953. She was 15.
Though only teens, when it came time to memorialize their departed classmate, the Round-Up kids set out with a dedication and purpose that was decidedly adult. They formed a club, elected officers and started fundraising in earnest just months after Wright had died. And anything they could think of to raise money, they gave it a try.
With no guidance from professional marketers or public relations consultants, the little army of high schoolers pooled their ideas and launched a cavalcade of fundraising ploys. Rosser wrote a letter to parents, business people and Classen alumni. Round-Up officers glued a shiny new copper penny to each letter, which entreated readers to “Please help this penny grow into a million!” When Oklahoma’s then-governor, Johnston Murray, visited the school, he praised the effort and even added his own contribution to the growing collection.
Students took odd jobs, hired themselves out as babysitters and held scrap paper drives. They auctioned or sold cakes, pies, cookies and cupcakes in the school cafeteria and around town. They gave talks at civic club and church meetings. Many of Classen’s 2,000 students signed pledges to earn $2 each to add to the total. “They had to earn it, not just get it from their parents,” says Rosser, who served as co-chair of the Round-Up. One student’s father built a wishing well, where pupils could deposit their donations between classes.
Central State Bank officials converted the money raised into pennies and corralled the cache in a large plexiglass box in the bank’s lobby. The pennies piled higher and higher, but four weeks shy of their deadline, students found themselves short and at risk of missing their goal. Employing every fundraising skill in their arsenal, the Round-Up officers led the charge to the finish line. Students canvassed neighborhoods collecting coins. Some even claimed to have gone hungry many times to add their lunch money to the cause.
The students’ dedication paid huge dividends, as a whopping $5,000 poured in during the final days. Exactly one year after their geometry teacher had couched her question, the Round-Up kids had raised a grand total of $11,762. With those funds, they were able not only to create their landscape memorial to Wright, but they also made a significant donation to cancer research at OMRF.
Although she’s long since left behind the “Round-Up Kid” label, Rosser says the true worth of those pennies has only increased through the years. “When you learn at a young age the value of community service,” she says, “it stays with you.”