For generations of Forest Park residents, the countdown to summer vacation starts with the All-School Picnic on the third Thursday in May. This year’s event takes place at The Park on May 23 from 11 a.m to 2 p.m.
Here are eight things you may not know about Forest Park’s first summer party that’s just for kids.
- The tradition dates back to the 1800s. Mention of the “Big School Picnic” appears in the first volume (1917) of the Forest Leaves — later the Forest Park Review. The article says the picnic, then held at the Altenheim Grove, had been celebrated for 18 years – dating it to 1899.
“Between fourteen and fifteen hundred school children marched in the parade down Madison Street headed by the police and fire department and led by Kummie’s band of ten pieces,” reported the Forest Leave’s front page on June 15, 1917. Lemonade was poured by then-Forest Park Chief of Police [Fred] Licht.
The picnic was observed on and off, but this will be its 40th consecutive year since 1973.
- The picnic is attended by all school children in Forest Park — parochial and public. Alumni are also welcome, as are parents and younger siblings. All younger children are accompanied by a parent. School PTOs and PTAs raise money to help pay for the picnic. This year will be the last year St. Bernardine School participates as an institution, as the school is closing.
- The park district serves up 2,000 meals. On the menu are hot dogs, chips, popsicles and watermelon, according to Recreation Supervisor Stacy Lafortune. Ultra Foods provides 2,000 sodas and waters. Nadeau Ice provides two 300-pound blocks of ice to keep beverages cool. Each student gets a ticket for a free meal, accompanying parents and siblings can purchase a meal for $1.
- Pony rides and entertainment are staples of the All-School Picnic. The ponies, provided by Tower Hill Stables, are a long-standing tradition, reaching back at least to the 1950s. “I used to take my kids on the pony rides, and now I hold my grandchildren,” former parks director Dave Novak told the Review last year. Other fun includes a climbing wall from the Hoffman Estates Park District, inflatables and carnival games. Three-legged races, egg tosses and other games are held. This year there will be entertainment by the Panda Dance Studios and magician Dirk Spence. Middle-school students get early admission to the Forest Park Pool for the second half of the day.
- Since 1992 the picnic has been named after the late Bob Haeger. The local bon vivant who “loved Forest Park more than anything,” according to daughter Laurie Kokenes, long owned the Forest Park Review. He was also president of the Chamber of Commerce and sat on Forest Park’s police and fire commission. He was also a devotee of barbershop quartet singing and did not object when referred to as “The World’s Greatest Baritone.” He also ran, unsuccessfully, for mayor in 1979 with the slogan, “Voting for Robert M. Haeger is the next best thing to being mayor yourself.” Haeger died in 1992.
- Several organizations partner to pay for the All-School Picnic. The Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, the park district, District 91 schools, the police department and public works all join together to make the event happen. Cash for the event comes from the Chamber, as well as business donors, such as Ferrara Pan, Ultra Foods, Walmart, Forest Park Community Education Council, the Kiwanis Club and the Forest Park Eagles.
- The picnic rallies all the taxing bodies of Forest Park. The day begins with a 7 a.m. meeting at Louie’s Grill where parks Director Larry Piekarz becomes Picnic General and maps out a strategy with troops from public works, the park district, police and schools. At the end of the picnic, a massive cleanup party with public works personnel, school custodians, park employees and volunteers combing through the park.
“In an hour it looks like [the picnic] never happened,” Novak said.
- Forest Park schools and police partner to reinforce good behavior at the picnic. D91 and the Forest Park police will reward children at the picnic for being “safe, responsible and respectful,” the slogan developed by the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program.
“When students are ‘caught’ being safe, responsible or respectful, they are given a raffle ticket,” said D91 Supt. Lou Cavallo. “Being responsible could be picking up trash seen on the ground and putting it in a trash can; being safe could be waiting patiently in line or not running on the pool deck; being respectful could be following an adult’s instructions,” Cavallo said. Prizes include pool passes, a ride in a police car or fire truck, open gym, movie night at the library with popcorn, and bicycles.