Helping Freedom Ring

America’s Freedom Festival at Provo has been described as the nation’s greatest celebration of Independence Day. Word’s like “greatest” have been ground down by overuse in our language and lost their edge. But for a city it’s size, I don’t know any town that makes more hoopla over the Fourth of July, and the days and sometimes weeks preceding it. I consider myself a minor authority on the subject. Years ago I served as president and then chairman of the festival. My first year we decided that Provo had the facilities and potential to make a bolder statement for American independence.

I was doing some work with Osmond family entertainment productions, and approached them to get involved. They did, and pulled out all the stops to make the stadium show a world class event. Military men and women paraded. Balloons filled the skies, The Osmond brothers sang, danced, played instruments, and whipped through karate moves. Marie belted out country favorites. Donny made his entrance swooping down from the skies strapped to the side of a helicopter. (His insurance agent went into cardiac arrest I suppose.) And the fireworks—they lit up the stadium, the town, the mountains the prairies, and Utah lake white with foam, or so it seemed. The Osmond’s had so much fun, and made a tidy profit, that they have been involved ever since in what has become the annual “Stadium of Fire.”

Like every bold experiment, not everything we tried that year worked. To represent our Native American culture, we brought in a dancer and his entourage. They were very good, but we were very ignorant of their art form. The handful of people who came to watch was more puzzled than entertained. The ratio of Caucasians to Native Americans was something close to Custer’s band at the Little Bighorn. I found later that a week following our little gathering, the group packed a stadium in New Mexico.

“People love the air show. They will flock to it,” the more experienced committee members told me. I hoped so. Flying in aerobatic acts, historical aircraft, and the famous Air Force Thunderbirds precision flying team cost a little less than the invasion of Normandy. The show management folks were reasonable though for an advance against ticket sales I signed over our family car. They overlooked the fact that our ancient Volkswagen bus was worth a five gallon gas can of jet fuel. (Bring your own bucket.)

The people who counseled me were right. Local folks flocked in droves to the air show. But they didn’t flock to buy a ticket and come inside. Why should they when they could park by the roadside and in the fields surrounding the airport and watch for free? We crashed and burned financially. The city picked up the tab. They even let me keep the Volks bus, but they were not smiling.

I couldn’t worry about their feelings or finances at the time. Our little committee was busier than a one armed paper hanger with the hives, as the saying goes. These days the festival production committees direct about 4,000 volunteers. We had a skeleton crew of about 30 people. My capable and willing neighbor Joanne Pitts (may her name be enshrined with the great patriots of history) was the Jim Thorpe of civic duty. Thorpe was one of the greatest athletes to ever compete, Hall of Fame football player, and all everything in track., Jim would arrive at a track meet representing his college. The other schools would introduce their sprinters, distance runners, shot put and javelin throwers, long and high jumpers. Jim would introduce himself. He was the whole team. Frequently he won. That was Joanne. She could do, and did it all.

Our parade chairman was willing and enthusiastic. Ironically, he himself didn’t parade much, having only one leg.

Speaking of irony, I canvassed the local service clubs for volunteers. I got one. He was a British citizen. He served well. But I’m not sure he ever caught the spirit of the occasion. He kept referring to the American Revolutionary War as, “That unfortunate incident in the colonies.”

Great memories; one of my most indelible is lying on a grassy knoll alone looking up into the dark sky, and down onto the football stadium. The flash and thunder of the last fireworks had died away. Cars were creeping bumper to bumper down every exit street. But that was somebody else’s problem. We had done what we set out to do. The emptying stadium brought back a quote from football coach Vince Lombardi, “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour… is the moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious”