ELIZABETHTOWN — The assignment for Shirley Deichert's eighth-grade class at Elizabethtown Middle School was for the students to write their autobiographies.
The teacher saw it as a way to challenge the members of her accelerated English class.
But one of her brightest students, Chris Millard, didn't want to write about his own life. The boy, who had been struggling with cancer, hesitated to rehash the experience.
"I remember him just kind of quietly saying to me, 'I can't get started on this, I don't want to remember anything after I got sick,' " Deichert recalled.
Deichert told him, "Chris, you're such a good writer, why don't you write about anything."
So, instead of an autobiography, in the spring of 1972, Chris penned an allegorical tale of a knight, Sir Millard, who completes difficult tasks to earn the diamonds of courage, wisdom, honesty and strength.
Soon after Chris died on Dec. 17, 1972, his parents, Charles and Irma Millard, included his story, "The Four Diamonds" in the package of papers they sent to Herb Kraybill, a Hershey Medical Center official who was helping organize a fund that was being set up to help children with cancer.
And the rest, including the inauguration of The Four Diamonds Fund and its dramatic growth through the annual THON at Penn State University, is history.
But it's a history that hasn't been that well-known in Elizabethtown.
"I think back then, colleagues and my friends knew, but with every generation, things get lost," Deichert said of the student and the class assignment that spawned the Four Diamonds Fund and the Thon and subsequent miniTHONs.
Deichert is a member of the Elizabethtown Area Educational Foundation and recalled that during a foundation meeting last year, the topic of the school's first miniTHON came up.
In 2012, Elizabethtown Area High School joined a number of local schools in holding a MiniTHON, raising $18,456 for the Four Diamonds Fund in their first year.
At the foundation meeting, Deichert mentioned that Chris was her student and recalled some memories of him and the essay he wrote for his class, comments that were met with some surprise.
"I guess I assumed that they knew," she said.
Seniors Alison Levosky and Elizabeth Reiner, who are co-chairs of the MiniTHON committee, agree that the full story of The Four Diamonds is not widely known.
"From being on the committee, people in our school are starting to kind of figure it out because we talk it up a lot, but I don't think the community is as aware of it," Levosky said.
This year, Deichert will attend the Elizabethtown Area High School's MiniTHON ... With about 170 students participating, the goal is to raise $25,000.
Chris' father, Charles Millard, says that while the history of Penn State's Thon and the proliferation of mini-thons has been gratifying, he takes extra pride in Elizabethtown's miniTHON.
"I've been hoping that it would happen there because that is ground zero, so to speak," Millard said. "Now they are just so enthusiastic and I am pleased with that."
Millard taught music at Elizabethtown Area High School for 25 years, retiring in 1984. He now lives with his wife, Irma, in Washington state.
Millard recalls that Chris didn't show him his Four Diamonds story while he was working on it, but remembers him running out of his bedroom the weekend before it was due, occasionally saying, "I got another diamond!"
"It was pretty heavy and pretty well thought out on his part," Charles said of the story.
Chris, who had a malignant tumor in his nasal passage, was treated at Hershey Medical Center. His family was helped through the Jimmy Fund and, after Chris' death, began raising money for a fund at the hospital to help other families of cancer patients.
Part of the early fundraising efforts included the sale of the story "The Four Diamonds," which was published in Chris' original longhand as a booklet, with illustrations by S. Arthur Shoemaker, an industrial arts teacher in the school district.
As for the story itself, Deichert said she never saw any drafts of the story either and that when Chris first turned it in, she was amazed by the depth of the tale, which was inspired by a family crest Chris' grandmother had shown him.
"His grandmother gave him that idea of the diamonds, I just kind of gave him a chance to let his voice be heard," she said.
While other students were writing about things like family pets and vacations, Chris was dealing with weighty topics that she, as a 27-year-old teacher, didn't expect of her students.
"He was a 13-year-old tackling a subject — death — that I wasn't even thinking about," Deichert said.
Chris was missing school a lot, and even when he did show up, he struggled.
"His breathing was labored as he sat in front of me sometimes," Deichert says.
When the story was finished, Deichert said she was loath to make grammatical or punctuation changes on Chris' copy, because she understood the attention it would receive. One of the few marks she made was an "H'' for honors: the highest grade on a scale that also included satisfactory and unsatisfactory.
Under the grade, she added: "Very well written. You ought to be a writer. ... By the time you're a senior, you'll be writing novels!"
"He was just a creative and industrious and intelligent boy well beyond his years," she said.
The year she taught Chris was Deichert's last year teaching at the school. The following year she took off to have a baby and then got a job at Elizabethtown College, where she worked in various positions until 2008.
She recalls with fondness her time as a middle-school teacher, especially the student who made an impression on her and many others.
This year's THON, which was held Feb 15-17, raised $12.3 million for the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey's Children's Hospital. Since 1977, it has brought in $89 million.
Millard says the Four Diamonds Fund has helped create something positive out of something that is so negative: the death of a child.
And while he is proud of what has been done in his son's name over the last four decades, he still imagines how things could have been different.
"It would have been interesting to have spent 40 years with him — to not have the fund, and to not have it necessary to have had the fund," he said.
Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era , http://lancasteronline.com