GROWING UP in Philadelphia, you knew the Hero Scholarship Fund Thrill Show bankrolled a college education for the children of Philadelphia police and firefighters who gave their lives, or were permanently disabled, in the line of duty.

What a great idea.

The community - you and I - bought tickets for a show (for decades staged at Municipal Stadium, later renamed John F. Kennedy Stadium) that raised money for the fund. At its peak, the stadium held up to 95,000 fans seeing entertainment headliners such as Tony Bennett and sports heroes such as Jack Dempsey.

If you thought it was run by the city, you were wrong.

In 1954, City Council created a Hero Scholarship Fund, run by a citizens committee headed by the late John B. Kelly Sr. and filled with a universe of civic stars. They invented the Thrill Show to bankroll the fund.

Although not a city agency, the Hero Scholarship Fund Thrill Show had an office in City Hall, Room 401. At some point, the fund moved to 1617 JFK Blvd., but it's now located in - of all places - the Felton, Del., home of director of operations Jerry Callaghan.

Over the decades, the Thrill Show decayed from high power and star power to a tired B-list. In January 2006, fund president Ruth Sliwinski sent a letter to the board saying that the Thrill Show - the fund's primary fund-raising device - would be abandoned and "there is no need for a full board as it now exists."

Why? Sliwinski deferred questions to attorney John McGrath.

The fund, according to its IRS filing, is sitting on $3.2 million in assets. It handed out a paltry $108,410 in scholarships in 2005, but shelled out a stunning $217,475 for "general and administration" expenses.

Two dollars spent for every dollar awarded? The ratio is way out of whack. To put it in context, the local chapter of Variety, the Children's Charity, spends 9 percent on administration. (Disclosure: I am on Variety's board.)

McGrath said the 2005 figures were a "snapshot" that might vary from year to year. Fixed costs are hard to reduce, he said.

One way to improve the ratio would be to award more money. However, instead of giving full scholarships, as had been the custom, the fund now caps tuition reimbursement at $8,800 a semester. (When the fund is squatting on $3.2 million in the bank?)

In 2005, 14 students got annual stipends ranging from $17,600 to a tiny $1,428.

Under different circumstances, I'd be thinking fraud. In this case, I'm thinking it's more like incompetence.

The cancellation of the fund's 2006 Hero Scholarship Fund Thrill Show resulted in the formation of a different entity, the Hero Thrill Show. The Hero Thrill Show got Sylvester Stallone as grand marshal and raised 370Gs under the direction of attorney Jimmy Binns.

Now, the old fund and the new Hero Thrill Show have locked horns over the scholarship money. Lawsuits loom on the horizon.

This is an easy problem to fix.

Councilman Jim Kenney, who chaired a Council hearing on the fund, would like a "melding" of the two groups. The old board, he believes, consists of good people who just ran out of ideas and energy.

Binns has the energy, the ambition and the contacts to restore luster to the Thrill Show.

FOP president Bob Eddis says the cops and firefighters can administer the fund themselves "for free." Firefighters Local 22 President Brian McBride told me the old board "served us well for many, many years, but now it's time for us to step up to the plate."

If Sliwinski and the remaining old-guard board members want to do the right thing - for the children they are supposed to serve - they should vote at their April 17 meeting to pave the way for a merger with cops and firefighters.

If they don't, this will get ugly and the old board is on the wrong side of the ball. *

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