Fifty years is a long time for anything to carry on, as the Autumn Leaves Festival master of ceremonies noted when kicking off the enduring annual event Friday morning.
“I know many people whose marriages haven’t lasted that long,” quipped Tim Frye, of WPAQ 740 AM.
With Mount Airy’s downtown streets already packed and the chilly weather feeling very much like fall, the 50th Autumn Leaves Festival got off to a special start.
The opening ceremonies included recognition of festival founder Dr. Dale Simmons and culminated with a balloon release.
Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Collins welcomed visitors and residents.
“Fifty years ago this community was a different place than it is today. What a beautiful place it is and we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he said. “We anticipate a record crowd this year.”
Representatives from several top sponsors were introduced and given the opportunity to speak briefly.
Mayor David Rowe spoke on behalf of the city government and introduced the commissioners present at the ceremony.
“One can’t help but think about the heritage we have,” in the nation and locally, he said. “What a priceless treasure we have in our hands. Lets learn to use it well.”
Rowe made two proclamations, one honoring the festival and the other in recognition of the Mount Airy Fire Department’s efforts for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
“I think it’s wonderful that people like our firefighters take up causes, good causes,” the mayor said, proclaiming the weekend “Fill the Boot Days,” and October as firefighter appreciation month.
Suzanne Bland thanked the department and Fire Chief Zane Poindexter on behalf of the organization, noting that they “have contributed thousands and thousands of dollars to help send children to camp,” as well as “tireless hours.”
Bland encouraged folks to treat well the firefighters collecting donations for the Fill the Boot campaign this weekend.
“When you see them out, please give and give generously and know that your dollars will have impact.”
Collins spoke again to introduce Simmons, thanking the former physician for the festival and “for really everything you’ve done for this community.”
The chamber official said he’d heard from many residents throughout the area who had good things to say about Simmons and his impact, including one who said to thank Simmons for literally saving his life.
“I’m sure there are countless stories like that,” Collins said.
Simmons was presented with a plaque recognizing his contributions.
“I want to thank the local citizens for your support, sometimes your tolerance,” the founder said, also thanking the visitors who have helped make the festival a success.
“One of the things we really want you to see is the leaves,” he told the crowd, “so you’ll have to come back next week,” he kidded.
“We want you to have a good time and if you do, tell your neighbors.”
The crowd released orange, green and yellow balloons into the air at a prompt from the stage, after which the Possum Holler Old Time String Band played “The Autumn Leaves Festival Song.”
Dobson resident Rusty White sat in the audience area surrounding the bandstand on Independence Boulevard waiting for the ceremony begin.
“We love the Autumn Leaves Festival so we always come, no matter what, for the opening ceremony,” he said. “I wait all year for this. When they get up there and talk, I think, game on.”
White talked about what’s brought him back to the festival for decades.
“We just love the music,” he said, correcting himself. “I love the music. My other half loves to spend money up on the street,” he joked, adding that his wife always makes sure to get a collard green sandwich.
“We get such a joy out of it. A lot of cities don’t do stuff like this. It’s such a blessing.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.