By RANDY PIERCE
Dedicated for many years to putting together an annual summertime event designed to offer opportunities for fun, socializing and raising money for the benefit of improvements in local parks, the members of the Fairview Heights Homecoming Association have decided to formally dissolve the organization but not before making one last substantial financial contribution for the community.
According to information provided to the city council by Angela Beaston, director of the Fairview Heights Parks and Recreation Department, in her monthly report, she was presented recently with a check for $18,653.33 by the homecoming association to be used toward the cost of a digital marquee sign at Moody Park on Longacre Drive.
The new sign would replace one now in use that requires the informational lettering, most often used to call attention to coming events, to be arranged on it by hand.
The homecoming association, whose members held the responsibility for every logistical aspect connected to the annual picnic, during its final years consisted of a group of local ladies who shared a heavy burden for handling this event.
They are Beulah Kaiser, Vera Mitchell, Jane Windsor and the late Donna McAndrews who passed away in March of 2020. All were assisted in their efforts, at varying times, by members of their respective families including Vera’s husband, former Mayor Gail D. Mitchell who died earlier this year.
The most recent Fairview Heights homecoming, an annual picnic held at Moody Park featuring rides, games, food, drink, live music and a parade, was held in 2017. There was also one in 2016 but the year before that, members of the Fairview Heights Homecoming Association and local police department mutually agreed upon cancelling it because it would have been held on the one-year anniversary of the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of a youth by a law enforcement officer in that community which sparked subsequent civil unrest throughout the nation with there being great concern that similar circumstances could take place then. The 2015 homecoming cancellation marked the first time in its history that any portion of it was cancelled without weather being a consideration.
But rain also wreaked havoc on the homecoming more often than everyone involved would have preferred, turning the park grounds into a sea of mud and causing great disappointment for the people who devoted so much time and effort into making it happen.
Also figuring in the 2015 cancellation and the homecoming not being held since 2017 was the lack of volunteers who were willing to help with it, that number dwindling to such a small amount that the four ladies (Vera, Beulah, Jane and Donna), feeling the effects of their not getting any younger, involved could no longer be reasonably expected to handle the immense load of responsibilities connected with it.
The pleas from those four for assistance with such things as the set up and tear down, operation of the games, food service and other activities produced very, very little in the way of results so there was no way it could continue in recent years.
The homecoming originated in 1972, only three years after Fairview Heights formally incorporated as a city, then held in a muddy field owned by local farmer Don Bergman, before that tract of land became a municipal park.
In her report, Beaston noted all of these factors, saying, “The committee has decided to dissolve due to the aging members and the inability to have enough volunteers to help assist with the yearly event.”
“Homecoming” is a traditional form of community celebration that goes back many decades in this part of Illinois with other area towns such as Mascoutah, Shiloh, Millstadt and Freeburg maintaining theirs through 2021 after the coronavirus pandemic-influenced cancellations last year.
That event terminology is now more often utilized in connection with week-long programs at local high schools as some of the cities and villages in St. Clair County and nearby still have significant annual picnics during the warm weather seasons but refer to them by different names such as the June Jamboree in New Baden, Belleville’s Oktoberfest or the O’Fallon City Fest.
At one point, the Fairview Heights Homecoming was held on the back parking lot at St. Clair Square during a time in the 1970s when George Lanxon was the association president before he got elected to his first term as mayor in 1979, continuing in that position until 1995. One of the homecoming’s very first such gifts to the city were the pavilions that were constructed in what was then called Longacre Park but have since outlived their effective usefulness and been replaced. Among the many components making up the local homecoming were a prince and princess contest and, for a few limited years, both craft booths and a car show.