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Festival in the Park’s historic roots reach deep

It started as a small thing in a small city in a small way.

Now, five decades later, it’s a big deal in a big town and – weather permitting – about 150,000 people may partake of it this weekend.

Anything that lasts 50 years in Charlotte, says Julie Whitney Austin, is remarkable on its own. Festival in the Park, the annual September gathering that has survived the test of time and a hurricane named Hugo, is her baby now. She’s inherited the mantle of responsibility from her late father, civic leader and Charlotte booster A. Grant Whitney, who launched the gathering in 1964.

“John Belk said, ‘Let’s do a festival,’ ” says Austin, who was 13 when the department store executive, leader of Charlotte’s Chamber of Commerce and future mayor turned to her daddy for help in setting it up. Whitney was an executive in Belk’s shopping empire and a tireless champion of the growing city. Belk had just returned from a trip to Paris, where the parks were teeming with events.

“So Daddy did, and it was very small,” Austin says. Whitney got some artisans to set up booths around the lake at Freedom Park and some food vendors. For the first year, the budget was a shoestring $4,000.

Fast-forward 50 years, and now Austin and her board of 22 people manage a budget of about $300,000 for the festival and the Kings Drive Art Walk in April. There are about 170 artists – selected by jury – displaying their wares, bands playing onstage, roving clowns and food outlets selling everything from elephant ears on up.

It’s little surprise that Austin’s life has become entwined with one of the region’s oldest and most popular events. Her family is accustomed to making history here. Her mother, Lillian DeArmon Whitney, who died in 2009, was a descendant of John Foard, a Mecklenburg County pioneer and signer of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

Occasional disruptions

Festival in the Park has run nearly nonstop in Freedom Park except for 1994, when it became more like Little Festival in the Parking Lot because of renovations to the park.

In 1989, the festival had already begun when bad weather was forecast. Whitney, fearing winds of up to 35 mph, ordered all the tents dropped, worried they might blow away.

That night Hurricane Hugo unexpectedly roared through Charlotte. Most of the collapsed tents remained anchored, but trees rained down and dozens of American flags that had been set up around the perimeter of the lake took flight, never to be seen again.

“There were some artists from Florida in a camper who said they were used to hurricanes,” says Gloria Bentley, festival treasurer and a volunteer for the event since the mid-’70s. “They wanted to know if we were going to start up afterward.”

That was a big, fat “No.”

Arts, merchandising

Austin, who grew up in Myers Park and has three grown children, studied art at East Carolina University and the University of Georgia. She uses her artistic side mostly on decorating her south Charlotte home and tending its garden, but her business acumen is courtesy of the Peanuts gang.

For 20 years, she worked with her mother, who in 1966 founded L. Whitney & Co., which licensed and manufactured Peanuts character merchandise. Her mom became known as Lillian “Snoopy” Whitney, or the “Snoopy Lady,” and sold Snoopy stuffed animals throughout the Southeast.

“It was fun,” Austin says. “Got to travel. Snoopy had his whole wardrobe – a Santa outfit, doctor and flying ace.”

Remembers father

Austin’s father organized other milestone moments for Charlotte, including the visit of President Dwight Eisenhower in celebration of the Mecklenburg Declaration on May 18, 1954, the dedication of the James K. Polk homestead attended by Lady Bird Johnson in 1968 and the visit of President Gerald Ford to Freedom Park in 1975 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Meck Dec.

Few people today know that the band shell at Freedom Park, erected by the Jaycees, was improved to its present condition for Ford’s visit. To the left of the band shell stands a bronze bust of Whitney, who died in April 1997.

Austin says that the artist, Graham Weathers, needed pictures of Whitney to make the bust, which was dedicated in 1988. She would walk around with her father, snapping pictures of him but not telling him why, so as to not ruin the surprise.

Whitney’s last festival was in the autumn of 1996. Though weakened by illness, he came in an ambulance and held court with the rear door open. Many people came by to thank him for his gift to the city – a small festival that grew with the town into a very big and special thing that fills the park each fall with art and fun.

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