For generations of Forest Parkers, the All School Picnic starts the countdown to summer vacation. Forest Park is a party town, but there’s one party that’s just for the kids – the third Thursday in May.

The 39th annual Bob Haeger School Picnic takes place on May 24 between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

It’s a tradition that goes back decades and is a favorite of school children of all ages.

“I remember riding ponies at the Altenheim for school picnics in the early 1950s,” said retired park district employee Joanne Leber.

At some point, the picnic moved to The Park, said Dave Novak, former executive director of the Forest Park Park District, who started working for the parks in 1973.

“The good thing about it is the cooperation by all the taxing bodies in the village. You go by The Park between 11 and 2 p.m. and it’s just wall-to-wall people – maybe 2,000 people. But with the village, the school custodians, the park employees and maintenance people, they get it all cleaned up in an hour.”

Students from the public schools and surrounding private schools attend, along with parents, alumni and even grandparents.

In addition to the three-legged races and egg tosses, children cement friendships that last even though they may move on to different high schools.

“I used to take my kids on the pony rides, and now I hold my grandchildren,” said Novak. “The kids who grew up in town and chose to stay in town, now they’re bringing their kids to the same event they attended as school children.”

Students play games, ride ponies and eat a hot dog lunch. This year there will be entertainment by the Panda Dance Studio, a magician and a police K9 demonstration. The children will also be able to play bingo, bounce inside a moon walk and scale a climbing wall. There will be an obstacle course and slide. After lunch, the kids play kickball, soccer, and participate in races. Older children, grades 5-8, finish the day with a trip to the pool.

District 91 Supt. Lou Cavallo said he was nervous when he heard about the picnic his first year in 2008. “I didn’t sleep the whole night before. I was just envisioning the potential problems with that many school children in a park,” he said. “Everyone’s worried and it always goes off without a hitch.”

In fact, his first year there was an incident that police at the time described as an “attempted abduction.” Police said a strange woman approached a child and asked him to come away with her.

“There were so many other adults there. The child ran to another adult. It was reported and we could not determine who approached the kid, [but] we take those things very seriously and put systems in place so it doesn’t happen again.”

After that, Cavallo beefed up security: Teachers now wear a special yellow vest, so they’re easy to spot. Children wear wristbands identifying their schools.

This year, D91 is incorporating elements of the good-behavior program incorporated by the schools. Students will get “tickets” for observed good behavior as part of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program.

“We’re encouraging kids to be safe, responsible and respectful during the picnic and rewarding kids with a behavior ticket,” Cavallo said.

Since its early days, the morning traditionally began with a 6:30 a.m. early meeting at Louie’s for all the principals, the park district personnel, police and staff.

Good weather has been the norm, says Larry Piekarz, park district executive director. “We’ve only had a rainout one year,” he said.

Parents, PTOs, PTAs and politicians have always volunteered to help, said Novak.

“Mayor Lorraine Popelka would always come. I counted on her from the 1970s on. She would be there every year in charge of the food,” Novak recalled.

The event was named after Bob Haeger, former publisher of the Forest Park Review and former head of the Chamber of Commerce. “He used to enjoy it so much,” said his daughter, Lisa Haeger.

Cavallo says he’s fine with the picnic now.

“It’s interaction with kids and community as a whole. The volunteers, parents, everyone comes together to do something the kids really enjoy. It’s a fantastic event and I’m glad it has continued for so many years.”

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...