LaVerne Cantrell could win a popularity contest every year during the third week of March.
Put her on the ballot, and she would be the winner by a landslide. Folks have been known to stand in line for 45 minutes just to reach her.
They all scream for ice cream.
But not just any ice cream.
Cherry ice cream.
Free cherry ice cream.
People do love their ice cream cones, especially when the word free is in front of them.
They will line up in both directions for two hours during the Cherry Blossom Festival. It is an Occupy Third Street Park movement by a hungry mob of sweet tooths. Call it Macons own Cone-ey Island, where taste buds and Yoshino buds live in harmony.
LaVerne is one of those lovely pink ladies who dresses in pinafore and will have given out thousands of cherry ice cream cones by the end of the week.
She is the matriarch of the butterfat brigade -- one of the hundreds of volunteers who make the festival an overwhelming success.
LaVerne has been serving ice cream in the park since the first full-blossomed festival in 1983. She has announced that this will be her final year. She is hanging up her ice cream scoops.
Thirty years is a nice round number, she said.
Those who know her arent so sure. They have heard her mention the word retirement before, even during the 25th festival in 2007. Thats an even rounder number. And every March she keeps marching back.
It has always been a natural fit for her. In 1962, she went to work at the Borden Dairy on Pio Nono as secretary for plant manager Claude Winn. She retired in 1995 after 33 years with the company.
Festival founder Carolyn Crayton approached Winn about supplying the ice cream for the festival, and the rest is history.
At the time, they no longer made ice cream at Bordens in Macon. So the ice cream was made special for the festival at another Borden plant in High Point, N.C.
We became the official ice cream of the festival, said LaVerne. It was called cherry almond supreme.
The free ice cream has become a staple of the festival and is available Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
The first year, the ice cream booth was located at the Poplar Street end of the park. That was the same year NBC-TV weatherman Willard Scott came to Macon with the Today show crew and did a live broadcast from Third Street Park.
The trees werent blooming, and it was so cold there were even a few snowflakes in the air. No worry about any ice cream melting.
Scott announced to millions of viewers: Folks, Im in Macon, Georgia, and they call this the Cherry Blossom Festival. But its more like the Cherry Bud Festival. These trees are shaking and freezing. Were all bundled up.
Things improved, although LaVerne has spent plenty of days when it was raining, windy or so dripping hot there were pink puddles on the sidewalk. She has been through another very warm week this year.
When Bordens sold its operation in Macon in the early 1990s, a succession of other companies stepped up to keep the tradition going -- from Dairyland to Pet Dairies to Mayfield. After Mayfield pulled its sponsorship following last years festival, Brusters in Griffin came to the rescue.
Being an ice cream lady does have its fringe benefits, especially if you love ice cream. And people.
Thats why I do it -- the people, she said. I enjoy seeing all those big smiles. I love to watch the tour buses and school buses come in. But, by the end of the week, Im always very tired.
Although you cant get your ice cream with sprinkles, if you wait until the blossoms start falling from the trees, they will sometimes float down and provide some natural toppings.
Of course, they dont add much flavor or nutritional value, but they do contribute to the experience.
Sometimes people will ask for chocolate, Laverne said. And I tell them this IS the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.