The original Cherry Blossom Festival in Macon wasnt so much a festival as it was a birthday party.
It was 1982, and Carolyn Crayton was looking for a way to honor her friend Bill Fickling Sr., who had donated 500 Yoshino cherry trees to line the streets of the Wesleyan Woods neighborhood where Crayton lives. Crayton had told Fickling it was her dream since moving to Macon in 1970 to see the trees up and down her street.
Crayton helped form the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission in 1974, which included planting the cherry trees throughout the city.
By 1982, Fickling had donated an estimated 30,000 trees to the effort. As a thank you to Fickling, Crayton organized a three-day event at Wesleyan College to honor Ficklings contributions that would take place the weekend of his birthday in March.
It was on a weekend when the trees were blooming (that I picked) to honor him, she recalled.
That weekend featured 30 events and proved to be a hit among those who attended.
It was so successful that I just couldnt let it go, she said.
So in 1983, the first official festival was born. The festival was extended to 10 days and featured about 500 events. The festival had little money, but Crayton did have a base of volunteers with Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful as well as support from Fickling and other sponsors to help pull it off.
The organizers that year decided to promote the festival by inviting Willard Scott, then the weatherman for NBCs The Today Show, to come to Macon. Scott was famous for traveling to towns across America to give his weather reports, so his visit had great potential.
No one could have predicted the snowstorm that blanketed Georgia that weekend, shutting down the Atlanta airport. (It was the first time that weather threatened to derail a festival event, but certainly not the last.)
In the end, the Fickling family sent its private plane to pick up Scott.
That was Plan B, she said with a chuckle.
Crayton retired from the festival in 2002, but she remains active on the board and will always be the face most associated with Macons signature event, which opens Friday.
It makes me so happy wherever I go, she said. I just had my annual physical and (the staff) said, Oh, Carolyn, were so excited we can hardly wait! Its so thrilling for me to see the joy people feel and the excitement in opening the festival. I hope it continues to grow and grow. I love it!
A few of her favorite things
Theres one thing Crayton cant do when it comes to the festival, no matter how many ways you ask her.
She cant come up with one specific answer when asked about her favorite recollections. With more than three decades of festivals to choose from, its easy to understand why.
There are so many memories; I dont know if I could pick just one, she said.
She mentioned everything from the Budweiser Clydesdales visiting one year to the time the Macon Whoopee hockey team changed its name and jerseys to the Macon Cherry Blossoms for a single game during the festival. Crayton said she still has a pink jersey and a pink puck from the game.
Her favorite country to have a presence in the festival? That ones a bit easier, because the Yoshinos are native to Japan, and local Japanese companies such as YKK have been such long-term supporters of the festival. She has flown to Japan several times along with various Cherry Blossom Festival queens to take part in a festival in Macons sister city of Kurobe.
During the years, both she and the festival have received gifts to honor their work. She noted that YKK presented the festival with a beautiful wedding kimono that is permanently displayed at the festivals office.
Her house is decorated with all sorts of Japanese art pieces, but its an American piece of porcelain sitting on a small table in front of her couch that evokes one of Craytons favorite memories.
At the first Cherry Blossom Ball, William Simmons, the first chairman of the festival, called Crayton to the stage to present her with an elaborately wrapped gift. As he handed her the gift he dropped it, and everyone in the crowd could hear broken china inside the package as it hit the ground.
As the crowd let out a collective gasp, Simmons said something along the lines of What a shame! before finally letting Crayton and the crowd in on the joke: The package already contained broken porcelain. Helen Boehm, co-founder of Boehm Porcelain in New Jersey, came out and presented Crayton with the real gift -- a porcelain blossom.
He dropped it intentionally, she said with a laugh. I had no idea.
Perhaps her favorite memory of an event was the year that all of the Bibb County public schools music departments came together to perform. Backed by high school musicians, elementary school students from across the county changed the words of the song Apple Blossom Time to Cherry Blossom Time.
It was absolutely precious, she said.
Crayton has traveled to other festivals around the world for many years, serving not only as a judge for their competitions but also seeking out the best ideas that she and the Cherry Blossom Festival staff could adapt for Macon.
One of the earliest ideas was to have a theme and color associated with the festival. That one was fairly simple.
Its an ongoing theme, The Pinkest Party on Earth, she said. They wanted us to focus on a color, and ours is definitely pink. Each festival has its own color -- the Tournament of Roses (in Pasadena, Calif.) is red. Different festivals feature different colors.
The Kentucky Derby Festival taught her how to create the pins worn at each years festival.
Despite traveling to so many parts of the world to take part in other festivals, Crayton said shes never seen one that could match Macons involvement with the Cherry Blossom Festival.
The thing that Im the most proud of is that you often hear how it brings the community together, she said. I do think thats special. Ive been privileged to go to many, many festivals, but Ive never heard that said at other festivals.
Shes pleased that the festival continues to grow -- and adapt. One of her favorite things to look forward to in previous years was the Cherry Blossom Street Party, she said, but that has changed to a pub crawl this year because bad weather in previous years forced cancellations.
The street party was such a wonderful event because all ages could come together, she said. But I know the weather has affected the street party so many times. Theyve lost so much money because of that. ... I hope the new program is going to be good, and I hope people come out and enjoy the new program.
Crayton also is proud of the fact that about 90 percent of the events are free, allowing more people to participate. These are the kinds of things to the people that gives them (a sense of) ownership.
Crayton said she hasnt thought a lot about what her legacy with the festival will be, but the festivals slogan -- Love, beauty and international friendship -- is a good summary of what she hoped to achieve.
It has remained the message, she said. I hope it always brings the community together and extends friendship around the world.
Mr. Ficklings trees are truly a gift of love and have created so much beauty. People here have so much grace and loving. I think its appropriate. I hope Im remembered for that.