Former Mountain State Forest Festival director generals renewed an old festival tradition on the evening of Sept. 29. With twinkling carnival lights and the sounds of music resounding from the talent contest at the Elkins Town Square providing as a festive background for the celebration, 20 former director generals gathered at the Railyard Restaurant to reminisce about the years they directed the state's oldest and grandest celebration of the forest.
Sponsored by William G. "Bill" Hartman and Harold Elbon, the reception was, according to those in attendance, the first since the mid 1990s. Those joining the joyous occasion were Willard L. Herron, 1971; Gary Schoonover, 1980; Hartman, 1984; Elbon, 1988; Bob Wamsley, 1991; Molly Busch, 1992; Frank Santmyer, 1993; Hugh Hitchcock, 1995; Craig Hyre, 1996; Dottie Wamsley, 1997; Steve Shepler, 1998; Todd Wamsley, 1999; Kathy Leombruno, 2000; Karen Bialek, 2001; Ray LaMora, 2003; Mark Tomblyn, 2004; Robin Dolly, 2005; Cindy Nucilli, 2006; Cliff Marstiller, 2007; and Lisa Wamsley, 2008.
Hartman remembered his year rather philosophically as he thought back to 1984. He spoke more in terms of what he felt the MSFF means to the city and its people than what it meant to be its director.
(CU?and The Inter-Mountain/Wayne Sheets)
HONORED DIRECTORS — Former Forest Festival Director Generals Bill Hartman and Harold Elbon speak during a dinner honoring previous festival director generals.
"I have been associated with the festival for about as long as I can remember," Hartman said. "It promotes a spirit of solidarity in the community - we probably have over a thousand volunteers that give their time each year doing all they can to make the festival a success. I think that anyone who has ever worked closely with it is very proud of what they have done and of what they have given to it.
"It has been a pleasure and an honor to work with the planners and organizers over the many years I've been associated with the festival," he said. "Take a moment and consider all those young ladies who have served as our queen. They have gone on to become very successful people. I think we have done an outstanding job in selecting our queens. I also think that the vast majority of those who have been closely associated with the festival and those who have served as its director are still living in the Elkins area. Let me ask you, 'Where would Elkins be if it had not had the festival for the past 73 years?'"
Hartman also mentioned the time that the board had to fire the director in April creating a maddening search for another to fill the position. Hartman was an assistant director seven years, director general and president of the festival's board of directors twice.
"Harold (Elbon) and I talked about doing this (dinner) for several months and here we are this evening with a gathering of those who are the history of the Mountain State Forest Festival," Hartman said. "I think it is very important for those who wish to share their memories with one another - and publicly - should have this opportunity. That is what this evening is all about."
Elbon, who directed the festival in 1988, said, "I think the festival gives a town of our size the opportunity to 'blow off steam' during a week of festivities, which creates an atmosphere of less crime for the rest of the year. I think it is as important part of the community's social infrastructure as the college life and the real life of everyday living.
"I've been associated with the festival since I was in grade school. It was always the thing I, my friends and everyone else I know, looked forward to all year long. It gives everybody's relatives the opportunity to come back home to visit friends and loved ones. There are many people who, each year, give their time and energies to make sure that everybody, regardless of their walk in life, have an opportunity to enjoy themselves. The carnival is a big draw for folks to come to town and enjoy themselves. In fact, there was a time when it was the leading draw for bringing folks to town.
"Prior to my becoming director, I went to the Pioneer Days celebration in Marlinton. They had a stage set up downtown where everyone could gather to watch talent shows and other entertainers," Elbon said. "I got to thinking, all of these people are coming to enjoy the festival and only about 3,000 of them get to go to the several shows and activities that make up the festival. I wanted something like they had in Marlinton where more people could enjoy the shows and entertainers. To accomplish that, I had a stage built and placed in the middle of downtown Elkins. It has worked out pretty well I think. Even as we share our memories this evening, we can hear sounds of the talent contest coming from the stage. It provides the means by which several thousands of people enjoy the festival not just those that are privileged to attend the 'for fee' shows.
Gary Schoonover declared with tongue in cheek that the year he directed the festival, 1980, "is the year that set the benchmark of excellence that every director general since has strived to equal. "But, in my opinion, they have been unable to do so." A resounding roar of objection from the room full of fellow directors convinced him that perhaps, although his year was a very successful one, others had in fact achieved an equal level of success.
Schoonover said of the festival's magnetism, "My kids will come home for the festival when they won't come home for their class reunions. That speaks volumes for its popularity - at least in my family.
"Seriously folks," he continued, "it is what we've all made it. It is an exciting time at which to come back home. We have a great heritage here - something worth all the effort everyone has put into it over the years.
"We have had, and still face, many challenges, especially those of the economy, for the past two or three years, and the success of the festival is testimony to the talented people who have been at the helm facing those challenges."
Schoonover concluded his remarks by saying, "I congratulate each and every one of you for all your hard work in making each year a success, even though 1988 set the benchmark for success."
Other humorous things were mentioned. One was Hartman talking about when he informed Mary Hartman, owner of Hartman's Flower Shop, that he was going to let other flower shops participate in providing flowers for the various dinners and other events. Apparently Ms. Hartman did not like the idea of losing the exclusivity. He said that Ms. Hartman was standing "in the middle of my desk the next morning wanting to know why he had done such a dastardly thing." He also talked about the ruckus created when the American Legion was informed that it would no longer be receiving half the festival's profits from the carnival. "They weren't doing much to earn the money," Hartman said, "so we changed our policy." This happened during one of Hartman's stints as president of the board of directors.
One of the most challenging years was 2001, the year Bialek was director general.
"Just six weeks before the festival was to begin, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were attacked," Bialek said. "The (Army) National Guard began to activate and took the armory from us. We, as always, had already planned to use it for the Distinguished Guest Dinner, the Queen's Ball and several other activities. The bombing changed all that. There we were, with the opening ceremonies just weeks away, and I had to find new venues for all the activities that were planned at the armory. We went to work and with the great effort of my staff, we made it through. I will always be grateful for all the hard work and dedication they gave me that year. It was a difficult time, but as I look back on it now, I am satisfied with what we did."
Herron was Director General in 1971, the year that President Richard Nixon served as guest speaker at the queen's coronation.
"It was totally different than anything I expected," he said. "To begin with, right after I accepted the responsibility of being director, I met Hank Keim, who was a member of the festival's board of directors. He said, 'Come along with me, I'd like you to go to the Citizens Bank to sign the note so we can finance the festival this year.' I said, 'Very well, I'll go with you and do that.'
"Another of the things that impressed me was that I was the first director general since 1936 to have the president of the United States come to the festival. President Roosevelt was here that year and none had been here since.
"We received word around the end of July that President Nixon had accepted our invitation to come and by that time we had most of the events already planned - especially the coronation. His coming meant that we were going to have to change a lot of things. We met with his staff and worked out the details.
"There was a lot of turmoil in the young people that year, especially in the college population," Herron recalled. "We had to make special arrangements for the protestors that we knew would be there, so we set aside a section on the hill above the amphitheater for them. As I look back on the event, I remember that everything went pretty well. Once the protestors were allowed to voice themselves, everything quieted down and went as planned. I would estimate that we had at least 100,000 people gathered on the hillside the day of the coronation. It must surely be if not the largest crowd to attend the coronation, one of the largest.
"Back in those days, I had only five assistants," Herron reminisced. "Today they must have 20. It is certainly one of the most memorable things that I have done in my life."
Frank Santmyer, director of the 1993 festival said, jokingly, "I'll bet that I was the only director that received the queen's fee in bank stock. Bill McLaughlin called me one day and said, 'Meet me down at the Tygart Valley Mall.' He arrived in a van and I thought he was never going to get out of it. Then I realized he was changing clothes - he had just left a bank meeting - to go hiking. Well, he got out of the van and handed me the stock certificates and said, 'Here, this is for Gretchen.'"
As the evening came to a close, Bob Wamsley proposed a toast to Hartman and Elbon for their efforts in organizing the event. He encouraged them, and everyone there, to do whatever they can to help make the event an annual affair.