Just as the weather warmed and summer beckoned, school children in Forest Park were given a day’s reprieve from their studies 35 years ago and told to go outside and enjoy the spring air. They did so gladly in 1973-and every year since.
The annual Bob Haeger All School Picnic is a light-hearted tradition that has steered clear of homework assignments and classroom lessons for more than three decades. It is quite simply a reward. The event has grown over the years from a simple parade and bagged lunch to an all out party with music, games, swimming and food. Some 2,000 students, teachers and parents attended this year’s picnic held Thursday, according to estimates from event organizers.
“Our attendance rating is very high,” District 91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo said with a smile.
This year’s picnic was Cavallo’s first, having just completed his inaugural year with the village’s public schools. The event is truly unique, said Cavallo, and actually gave him pause when he considered the logistics of putting every kid in town in a single location.
“I was a little nervous and didn’t sleep much the last couple days,” Cavallo said. “Everybody tells me the same thing, that everyone goes through it and when it’s over you wonder what you were worried about.”
Scott Entler spends his summers managing the aquatics center at the Park District, and has been a poolside regular for 20 years. Before that, he taught at Garfield Elementary School and later was an assistant principal at the middle school. It was at the same time he was managing a fifth-grade classroom that educators and village officials decided to collaborate on a picnic for the kids. The gregarious Haeger was active on many fronts in town-business development, politics and who was the long-time owner and publisher of the Forest Park Review. He took an interest in the celebration from the start, said Entler.
“[Haeger] was probably one of the driving influences,” Entler said.
Kids from every school, public and private, were invited, as were their parents. The fire department used to lead a parade through the streets. And then it grew. Kiwanis members got involved, the Park District signed on and soon enough there were various organizations and businesses sponsoring the event.
To this day the Chamber of Commerce and Development and the various parent groups at the schools remain the chief financial supporters.
“Forest Park was a pretty unique community and it became a tradition,” Entler said.
Dave Novak, the now retired Park District executive director, worked alongside Haeger to get the picnic started, according to Haeger’s daughter, Laurie Kokenes. When Haeger died in 1992 it was Novak who suggested the event be named in his honor.
Now that she’s at the helm of the chamber, a position once occupied by her father, Kokenes said it’s fitting that she’s been able to stay involved in the picnic. In addition to being a primary sponsor through the business association, Kokenes continues to dole out raffle tickets each year at the picnic.
“Sometimes I feel like, whether it’s unconsciously or consciously, that I’m carrying on some of his work,” Kokenes said.