Rubin: The Cherry Festival’s roots, and Gordie’s wisdom

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Living in Traverse City during the National Cherry Festival is a lot like living in Ann Arbor during the art fair:

Some people embrace it, some people ignore it, and some people get the hell out of town.

Another similarity is that in all three categories, you’ll find people who grouse about the intrusion – the sunscreen-scented tourists, the congestion, the befuddled drivers who can’t seem to grasp the meaning of a “One Way” sign.

One significant difference, though, is that while the art fair is about art, the Cherry Festival is supposed to be about an industry and the place it comes from.

That, says festival director Trevor Tkach, is why the Heritage Parade will find its way downtown at 7 p.m. Tuesday night after a decade in cherry-scented absentia.

Michigan’s largest summer festival ends its annual eight-day run Saturday night. At 11:15 that morning, 50,000 or so people will line Front Street for the DTE Energy Foundation Cherry Royale Parade.

The Heritage Parade won’t come close to that number, but the crowd count isn’t the point.

“It’s Traverse City’s event,” says Tkach, a native. “It’s a commemoration of where we as a region came from.

“Anybody is welcome to watch it and we hope they enjoy it, but it’s on and by and for the community.”

The parade had expired for lack of money and volunteers. It was resurrected in time for the Cherry Festival’s 90th anniversary with a three-year sponsorship commitment from Consumers Energy and an outcry, or at least a steady murmuring, from the public.

The festival had put out an anniversary call for old photos and recollections – what Tkach calls “getting the band back together.”

The best pictures were assembled in a book from Mission Point Press called “Generations of Fun.” The best memories are harder to quantify, and to organize: “We have a lot of history,” he says, “and unfortunately, a lot of it is only in people’s heads.”

As festival organizers conducted surveys and town hall meeting, Tkach says, it became clear that the locals wanted something more personal than the carnival and the Cherry Idol singing competition.

They already have easy access to cherry mustard, cherry salsa and cherry chocolate ice cream topping. The Heritage Parade became a way to blend other staples, like regional history and the groups and things that helped shape it.

Expect veterans. Native Americans. Growers. Workers.

And, Tkach says, “Tractors. A heck of a lot of tractors.”

A final word, if you don’t mind, from Gordie Howe

It’s the 5th of July.

You’ve had too much corn on the cob and quite possibly too much beer, and the family you share a back fence with has shot off about a thousand too many fireworks, probably dating to mid-June.

So is it too much to share one more Gordie Howe story?

The setting is Damman Hardware in Bloomfield Hills. Robert del Valle, now a 55-year-old in Ferndale but then a 12-year-old from Troy, is in the store with his dad.

Robert looks up, and – Gasp! Double-take! Standing only feet away is the best hockey player on Earth.

Robert makes a respectful request, Howe signs his name, and Robert thanks him.

“You like hockey?” Howe asks, and Robert assures him that he does.

“What position do you play?”

I’m picturing young Robert averting his eyes as he answers. It’s an age where skill equals status, but he speaks honestly: “Oh, I don’t play. I don’t skate very well.”

Maybe Howe’s response comes from being a father of four. Maybe it simply comes from being a kind and thoughtful human being. Maybe it’s a combination of both.

“That’s OK,” he says. “There are things I don’t do very well.”

Low-key by nature, Howe preferred not to be approached in that sort of setting. One autograph could become dozens, and there goes an afternoon.

Reflexively, though, he gave the perfect answer to a kid who only wanted a signature, but received reassurance and reinforcement as a bonus. It’s a sentence worth repeating to other children in other places: “There are things I don’t do very well.”

Chalk up one more point for Gordie.