Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Building a community

RICHMOND, Va. (Wednesday, October 10) – Today was yet another warm autumn day, but despite the heat, staff and volunteers were busy trying to prepare Richmond’s riverfront for the third and final year of the National Folk Festival.

While many others were working in the sun, sweating appropriately from the heat, two men had what might be a plum job – in the shade of a tent in the festival’s operations area.

The two men were not taking it easy, however.

Terry Smolinski measures a board he will use for a stage platform.Van Mertz, of Bethesda, Md., and Terry Smolinski, of Richmond, were busy in what Mertz called “the M*A*S*H of carpentry,” building stage platforms, drum risers, and other components that performers and exhibitors will need during the three-day festival, which begins Friday.

This year, the task was relatively light. In the first year, many wooden structures, such as steps, had to be built anew. But some things wear out – like the drum risers used last year – and as the performers and exhibitors change each year, so do their needs. The carpentry crew still has plenty of work to do.

Van MertzMertz has been volunteering with the National Folk Festival and some of its spinoffs for 24 years. Many volunteers are invited back to work on the festival year after year, and the veterans provide essential institutional memory of what needs to be done. Every three years, the festival moves to another town, however, and the veterans have to get used to working with new people, like Smolinski – a retired carpenter – who is volunteering with the festival for the first time.

Mertz says the new people in each town are likewise essential: They know the local ways of doing things, where to get things, and whom to talk to for help with bureaucratic and other obstacles arise.

The new people in each town offer Mertz something more valuable than local knowledge, however. It is a greater sense of community.

“I’ve learned a long, long time ago that just about every place I go, people are good,” Mertz said. “People are basically good despite what we see on the news.”

For all the towns Mertz has worked in, he thinks, “This is home, too – a great big community I feel comfortable in.”


Mertz has ties to Richmond through his day job -- he designs and builds museum exhibits, including some at the American Civil War Center at Tredegar as well as at Richmond's Maymont Park. Anyone who has looked at or pushed buttons on the model of the Chesapeake Bay watershed at Maymont's nature center has experienced Mertz's work.


Ralph Derbyshire and Charlie Marcus mark power cables under the Dominion Stage.While Mertz and Smolinski were busy in their M*A*S*H, others were busy all over the festival site. Electricians Charlie Marcus and Ralph Derbyshire were busy running electrical cables to the Dominion Stage. They estimate that the festival uses 3,000 feet of main cable alone. With extension cords and other cables that performers and others bring, the amount of cables and cords increases to about 6,000 feet – more than a mile.

Neither wanted to guess how much microphone, guitar, and other cables will be used on site.


Jermaine Brown gets ready to install stairs on the Comcast Stage.
Jermaine Brown was helping assemble the Comcast Stage on the other side of the Tredegar complex. In two hours, he and another worker had put all but three stage panels in place, but they had to attach crossbars to stabilize the stage supports, finish installing steps, and add the skirting around the edge of the stage.

All the chairs here. . .

Chairs outside the Family Stage

. . . have to go here.

The Family Stage


Correction (Thursday, October 11): As a journalist, I try to get things right, but mistakes do happen. Yesterday, when I interviewed Terry Smolinski, I asked him his name. He said he had to spell it. Unfortunately, he did not say it, and I did not ask him to repeat it. I did repeat the spelling I thought I heard: S-M-O-L-I-N-S-A-I. He actually said (the letters) S-M-O-L-I-N-S-K-I. We both heard the "ay" sound in "K." But I did not hear the "K" sound in what he said and he did not did not hear its absence in what I said. I kept thinking what I originally wrote, "Smolinsai," looked strange, found Smolinski, and got it corrected today.


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