August 11, 2022

Heroes of the Cherry Festival

Meet four people who make that one week in Traverse City unforgettable
By Lynda Wheatley | June 25, 2022

You could probably guess that pulling off a weeklong national festival that attracts thousands of people is no small feat. You might even know that a huge contingent of the people who make that festival happen are volunteers. But did you realize that some take a week’s vacation from their job to volunteer? Or that others, who get a small stipend, work dozens of hours before and after the week of Cherry Fest to ensure the event or element they run is an exceptional experience?

Until we talked with these four folks helming some of the biggest, most beloved traditions at the Traverse City National Cherry Festival, we didn’t either. Here’s a look at what brought them in, what drives them, and what keeps them coming back.

Kyle Clute | Director, Parades

How I started: “I had a really good friend who was the parade director for the Junior Royale Parade [around 2009], and he was looking for some help. I told him I’d be willing, went down there to pitch in, and for most years since, I've been pretty much committed. In 2015, I got the assistant director job. And then next thing I know, I’m in the weeds and I’m doing it.”

On starting over: “In 2019, we had the best parade season we’ve ever had. It was like a train. All the little glitches had been ironed out, everything went off without a hitch. It was just perfect. So we were planning on 2020 being even better. And then—COVID-19. No parade. In 2021, they asked us to do a standing-only parade out at Grand Traverse Resort. We started from scratch. We basically haven’t had the Cherry Festival parade in three years. We had to knock all the rust off and figure everything out again.”

Current status: “We pretty much start talking about the parades in November, lining up marshals and cars and getting commitments from people. Right now, it’s crunch time. I think about one or two weeks out, a lot of people at the festival start sweating it. It just gets real, right?”

Big challenges, big wins: “This year, getting marching bands has been a struggle. With fuel prices, it’s hard for them [from around and out of state] to drive up to northern Michigan and back. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of people on social media asking about local bands, our high school bands—how come they’re not involved. And it’s usually that the kids are too busy. They’re at baseball, soccer, football camp, summer jobs—all over the place. But this year, the Trojans, the Titans, and the Gladiators are all going down the route, and that is one of the big points we’re really excited about, that Traverse City’s high schools are pretty well-represented in the parade.”

When to catch the parades:
- Consumers Energy Very Cherry Porch Parade: July 2-9 in neighborhoods around town
- Consumers Energy Community Royale Parade: July 7 at 6pm
- DTE Energy Foundation Cherry Royale Parade: July 9 at 11:15am

Katherine Brege | Race Director, Meijer Festival of Races

Duties: “Overall, I organize all the operational aspects of the four races [5K, 10K, 15K, and half-marathon]. I communicate with the NCF office, 26 volunteer groups, local police, water supply, T-shirt design, Northwestern Michigan College, the timing company, TCAPS, etc., to make sure all aspects of the race run smoothly.”

I live for: “The morning of race day. I’m up at 3:30am to connect with my team. We have four locations that day that need to all run smoothly—late packet pick-up at Central High School; the half-marathon start at Old Mission Elementary; the 5K, 10K, and 15K start at NMC; and the finish line on Union and Front streets … along with the 10 water stations along the courses.

Unexpected snafus: “For two years in a row, the route under Murchie Bridge [at the mouth of the Boardman on West Bay] was underwater.”

Expected snafus: “Every year we have people show up at NMC for the half-marathon, which starts way out on Old Mission Peninsula because it’s a point-to-point race, not a loop. Once, a runner showed up at the finish line at 7:10am and asked, ‘Where does the Half start?’ The [volunteer] pointed to the peninsula and told him, ‘13.1 miles that way.’ We do the best we can to get everybody where they need to go, but in some cases, we just can’t.”

I know that it’s all OK when: “I hear from the half-marathon start that the runners are off, and [we’ve sent] our runners out from the main starting spot at NMC. Then, when I hear that runners are arriving at the finish, I take a deep breath … and start to clean up. That’s my quiet time, just picking up all the stuff after the race.”

When to run the Meijer Festival of Races (all July 9):
- Priority Health 5K starts at 7:30am
- Michigan Planners 10K starts at 7:50am
- Michigan Planners McKinley Challenge 15K starts at 8:05am
- Half Marathon starts at 7am

Go to runsignup.com/Race/MI/TraverseCity/MeijerFestivalofRaces to register for open events.

Angela Sayler | Director, Queens Program

How I started: “I was blessed to be named the National Cherry Queen 2009-2010. The next year, Kay Relyea, director of the Queens Program at the time, asked me to join the committee as her assistant director. Kay took me under her wing and ultimately groomed me for when she was ready to hand over the baton.”

Duties: “As the title implies, me and 12 other ladies on the Queens Committee—the Queen Team, as we affectionately call it—set up appearances for the queen at NCF and throughout the year. The bright and shiny part, the component that most people see, is that we chaperone the queen and court to any and all appearances … but behind the scenes we are fundraising, coordinating events, securing festival wardrobe and food sponsors, recruiting potential candidates, finding judges, and donating our time, talents, and energy to ensure the queen and court have the opportunity of their lives.”

Why I do it: “I had one of the most memorable years of my life as the National Cherry Queen and made so many wonderful friendships. I knew I wanted to stay involved and help however I could.”

Surprise: “Before my younger sister Sonya [Sayler] Gallagher [NCQ 2013] encouraged me to apply, I had no idea what went into planning and executing an event of this magnitude. We grew up as the sixth generation on a fruit farm—predominately cherries—so we were typically working on the farm harvesting cherries at festival time. But the things we both remember most are the traditions that have kept the festival alive. … I like to think that the Queens and the Queens Program is at the root of the NCF tradition, so it’s incredible to have the opportunity to help continue that for generations to come.”

When to meet the National Cherry Queen:
- Opening Ceremonies at the Open Space on July 2 at 10am
- Princess Tea at Great Wolf Lodge on July 5 at 10am
- Festival Fashion Show at Great Wolf Lodge on July 6 at 4:30pm
- Queen’s Coronation at Hagerty Center on July 8 at 5:30pm

Jan Phillips | Director, Ambassador Oasis

Duties: “I feed between 250 and 325 [Cherry Festival volunteers and workers] per day. I have them sign in, so I have a pretty accurate count. We have a permit from the health department, and we grill hot dogs, brats, and burgers right on site. And I have a big buffet line, with a salad bar and fruit—for all those vegetarians and health nuts. A lot of watermelon, bananas, plums—whatever is on special that day. I go shopping every day. The first day, I fill three shopping carts.”

Radio handle: “Lunchbox.”

Do you have help? “If I can corral somebody to go [shopping] with me, but usually I need them at the tent. As I say, I have been doing it so long [23 years at Ambassador Tent], we’ve refined it to a point where it almost works by itself. … I try to get three or four people [working in the tent] per shift, and I have three shifts per day, four hours each. I have a lot of people who return year after year, so that helps.”

Where is the Ambassador Tent, anyway? [Silence.]

A hint? “That’s a secret. It’s supposed to be a respite for these people that work all the time. They can go and sit, put up their feet, have a meal or a snack. Some people take a nap. We just let them be. It’s away from the noise, I’ll tell you that much.”

Why I do it: “I got involved in the Cherry Fest [30 years ago] because I got tired of trying to fight through all the traffic in town, and I just thought, ‘I might as well join and be a part of this nonsense instead.’ If you live in Traverse City, you have to partake.”

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