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Riverfest through the years

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BACK IN THE DAY: Riverfest I.
  • BACK IN THE DAY: Riverfest I.

I don’t remember much about the first Riverfest, except it was hot and I was there. I was completing my first summer as an intern at the Arkansas Gazette, working in the features department. Part of our job was publicizing fun events going on in the community — or at least that was part of the real journalists’ job. Mine was to write inconsequential blips, compose compelling headlines like “Panel Sets Meeting” and generally stay out of the way.

I remember realizing early in the summer that it was a good thing “publicizing fun events” wasn’t the entire mission, because there just weren’t too many events going on, fun or otherwise. And that’s primarily why I went to that first Riverfest — because it existed. The lineup of events at what then was known as the Summer Arts Festival wasn’t tailored for a college junior-to-be, but hey, it was happening, the Gazette had trumpeted it, and I had nothing better to do.

Missing fun wasn’t my nature. Still isn’t, and that’s why I continue to attend — and now absolutely adore — this festival. I haven’t attended all 29 festivals, but I’ve certainly been to a whole lot more than I’ve missed, and my current streak is 12 and counting.

Through the early and mid-1980s and again in the mid- and late ’90s, I covered the festival as a journalist, and after I went to work at Acxiom I volunteered to work in the specialty beer booth, a natural fit. Soon I began recruiting volunteers inside Acxiom, and thanks I’m sure to our associates’ willingness to pitch in and Acxiom’s annual cash sponsorship, I was offered a spot on the Riverfest board of directors.

Flattered and excited, I immediately signed on and soon met an incredibly hard-working group of people committed to giving Arkansas fun-lovers something to celebrate every Memorial Day weekend. I was impressed with this group of Riverfest supporters’ strong teamwork, attention to detail and selfless donation of time.

Only it wasn’t the board, the policy-setting stewards of the festival, that knocked my proverbial socks off. It was the Riverfest committee, the approximately 150 volunteer worker bees who are the absolute backbone and lifeblood of the festival. This team’s combination of institutional knowledge and dedication to the cause keeps the festival going, and I admired their willingness to commit the time and energy to the not inconsequential task of setting up, executing and tearing down an event that plays host to about 250,000 people across three days in the parks along both sides of the Arkansas River.

Not to besmirch my fellow board members, a great group of community-minded people who are also strong believers in the Riverfest mission and have helped secure a solid financial position for the festival in a time when other events are struggling to stay afloat. And they too would tell you that it’s the dedication of the Riverfest committee that keeps the festival on track — and affordable. Look at the entertainment lineup, and remind yourself that seeing any one of about 15 of these bands at another venue would cost you far more than the $10 advance ticket that’s good for all three days of the festival.

I’m honored to serve as board chairman this year, and I’ve spent much of the year doing what I can to be supportive — in spirit and in action. I’ve tried to spread that support across the board, the committee and the amazing Riverfest staff (two full-timers and two part-timers).

As the 30th anniversary festival approaches, I’ve thought about how my perspective on Riverfest has changed. For the longest, I loved Riverfest because I had fun. But in the last few years I’ve come to love Riverfest because it gives so many others the chance to have fun.

I’ve realized that while most of the people I work and socialize with can scrape up the money to go see about any band that comes to town — did I mention that I spent more money on four Rolling Stones tickets than I did on my first car? — many others simply can’t. Riverfest gives them an affordable opportunity to rock out, festival style.

My favorite Riverfest moment came last year when the Doobie Brothers took the stage for the final big show Sunday night in North Little Rock. When the group took the stage, I hovered in the security area between the stage and the fenced-off crowd and noticed a couple standing right up front. As the Doobies broke into “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” I saw that both had teared up and were beaming as they looked at each other and pointed at the stage, the noise leaving gestures as their only way to communicate. They were clearly reveling in a “can you believe what we’re seeing” moment of unadulterated glee.

I’ve never denied myself a moment of fun and so have come to take them for granted. But I knew this sort of good time was one this couple hadn’t often experienced. And watching them have fun at Riverfest was more fun than having fun myself.

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