WOONSOCKET – They lauded Dave Richards for his years of service to the city’s annual Autunmfest Columbus Day weekend festival Tuesday evening at the annual Autumnfest Grand Marshal reception, but it was his initial surprise behind being named for the tribute that still had him smiling.
Richards, the owner of WOON Radio and who has been involved in Autumnfest since the very first event at World War II Veterans Memorial State Park 35 years ago this year, helped with the selection of many other grand marshals over the years.
He also knows the great lengths members of the Autumnfest Steering Committee go to while working behind the scenes to keep the naming of the grand marshal a very special moment and a stunning revelation.
“I’ve been a part of that, and so I really appreciate that they got me so good,” Richards said during the reception in the St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center on Cumberland Street.
“I got called into the mayor’s office and I thought I was going to get chewed out for something that went out over the air,” Richards said.
It was, of course, a setup, and Mayor Leo T. Fontaine quickly was called out of the room by his assistant, Linda Plays, to meet someone who had a problem.
“He grabbed his portable radio and left me alone in the room,” Richards said. “Then he came back in and said’ ‘He wants to talk to you too,’ and when I turned around I could see all the orange jackets of the Autumnfest Steering Committee,” Richards said.
“What a surprise,” Richards said of the committee’s perfect “gotcha.”
“When they go through some extra trouble to surprise you it takes a lot of work, but the result is a delicious surprise.”
The committee goes through that kind of effort because the grand marshal is deserving of the tribute. and everyone talking about Richards Tuesday said he fit that description perfectly.
Richards had started out working on the first Autumnfest in 1979 because his boss at then-WWON, Station Manager Dave Russell, was helping to the get the event off the ground with Roger Begin and the other founding members of Autumnfest.
In particular, Russell needed help with setting up the announcing booth WWON would maintain in World War II Veterans Memorial State Park, and luckily, he had some good ideas for the work.
“It was a learning process,” Russell said at the reception Tuesday night. “We had no way of knowing how large the crowds would be,” Russell said. The crowds were very large in fact, tens of thousands of people over the three days, and the Autumnfest Steering Committee was itself caught by surprise, he said. “But we learned quickly from it and knew we had to make changes for the next year,” he said. Richards helped Russell get the state to provide a speaker system for the park and he was instrumental in getting the system all wired up properly before Autumnfest 1980 began.
The early days of innovation by all of Autumnfest’s volunteers created a tried and true festival planning schedule and crowd management guide that continues to make Autumnfest successful today, Russell said.
That’s why Russell believes the 35th edition of Autumnfest will also be a success. “It can’t miss because everything is in place and it works so beautifully,” he said. Weather is really the only major variable, and Autumnfest has even functioned successfully when the weather was bad, he said.
Richards has been through all of those challenges as well, Russell noted, and that is in part why his selection as grand marshal is so fitting.
“Dave does a lot behind the scenes that people never really hear about, and he is the most honest and fair person you will ever meet,” Russell said.
Roger Begin, who had helped spark the idea of the very first Autumnfest, said he also believes Richards has earned his tribute as grand marshal and is looking forward to seeing him ride in the Autumnfest Parade on Monday, just as he has done, Russell has done, and the other Autumnfest backers of the earlier days, such as the late mayors Gaston A. Ayotte or Francis L. Lanctot.
“I think the committee has made an excellent choice, both from who Dave is on a personal level and from what he has done to promote Autumnfest. He personifies the very best that is Autumnfest,” Begin said.
Richards, who is not shy as a radio personality and announcer, was called up to the former altar of the St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center to receive awards from the city’s General Assembly delegation and hear his praises sung by Northern R.I. Chamber of Commerce President John Gregory and Steering Committee Chairman Tim Paul as the reception continued.
Paul said he faced a surprise himself when he learned Richards had never been grand marshal after being active in the festival all of its 35 years. “I just want to thank Dave Richards,” Paul said. “We appreciated what you do and this is how we show it,” he said.
Richards said being selected as Autumnfest Grand Marshal has made him think of all the festivals that have gone on over the years and what he has learned from them during that time.
His favorite Autumnfest, the one in 1983, was also his most troublesome due to rain that caused problems with the sound system. When it was over, he thought the program he broadcast from World War II Veterans Memorial State Park that year had been one of his best.
But as another Autumnfest surprise, it was the one that earned him a first prize for the broadcast from the Associated Press.
“It showed me a lot about life,” Richards said. “Just when you think things are going awful, be easy on yourself, it is not as bad as you think it is,” he said. And best of all, Richards said, “It could turn out to be one of the best things you’ve ever done.”