Dedicated few volunteers help patriotic spirit flourish in Atwater

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comJuly 6, 2013 

Getting people to volunteer is particularly tough on the Fourth of July, but a dedicated core of workers has kept Atwater's Independence Day program going — even flourishing — over many decades, the event chairman says.

Greg McDaniel has led Atwater's Fourth of July Committee for 10 years and said somehow it always works out despite funding challenges, high temperatures or limited manpower.

"Nobody wants to be sweating in the heat on a holiday. But patriotism is pretty strong in Merced County," McDaniel said. "It keeps getting bigger and better. We're a nonprofit bunch of moms and dads who don't use city or county funding."

The late Jack Tucker, memorialized Tuesday afternoon with the installation of a bench in Atwater's Ralston Park, is widely credited with helping found the Fourth of July festivities. While details of the event's history are sketchy, a letter Tucker wrote years ago now belonging to community leader Roger Wood sheds some light on early days.

Tucker, who was commander of Atwater's Veterans of Foreign Wars post, said one of his predecessors, the late Dick Britton, sponsored a small parade on the Fourth of July, made up of a few VFW members and the Atwater Fire Department.

Tucker said the original idea was just to have a parade, but two Atwater women, Margaret Guthro and Lois Prince, suggested it be made a daylong event.

Their reasoning was the event would keep Castle Air Force Base personnel off the busy highways and provide a way for local non-profit groups to raise funds with food and game booths in Ralston Park.

Andrea Baptie, the committee's secretary, grew up in Atwater, moving here in 1975 when her father was stationed at Castle. She thinks the parade has been going for at least 50 years.

McDaniel said donations to the Fourth of July event are down 70 percent this year over past years.

He said the event costs $35,000 to produce; T-shirt sales, booth space rentals, donation cans throughout town and a $5 charge to get into the park at the Castle Commerce Center to watch the fireworks are revenue sources.

The Fourth of July Festival runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Ralston Park.

Baptie said many companies that supported the Fourth of July celebration in the past have quit donating or given smaller amounts. She said the committee may explore more fund-raising options to keep the event going.

McDaniel said there are 12 committee members and another dozen volunteers. A retired manager with Thrifty drugstores, the 58-year-old McDaniel said running the event is a year-round undertaking that becomes labor-intensive in the last 60 days.

McDaniel said very little is written down about the event's early days, probably because the early committee members could care less about personal recognition. He said quite a few people in on the event's beginning have done the hard work for current organizers.

Tucker, 92, died last year. A former Atwater City Council member and Atwater parks and recreation commissioner, Tucker once recalled the 1971 parade had 130 entries and a $3,005 budget. The celebration had outgrown the VFW's capabilities and the committee was incorporated 41 years ago.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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