Sixteen years of effort and over $90,000 raised in funds have established the Grand Riv-Har Duck Race as a respected annual tradition shared by the Riverside and Harvey alumni associations. Although known as long-time rivals in sports, the hatching of the Duck Race idea represents a classic example of how two neighboring school systems can achieve success by working toward the common good. Eventually hundreds of enthusiasts would become participants in the fund -raising efforts.
The Duck Race history has had many twists and turns, just like the river that bears its name, since first forming in the minds of a few creative, hard-working individuals who joined the Riverside Alumni Association after Principal John Weiss started it in 1997. Kathy Riley, an alumni association member at the time, said the members were small in number but were working hard to move forward with new ideas for raising funds and gaining new participants. The list of goals included providing college scholarships for deserving seniors and supporting other alumni and school functions.
Joan Parks, RHS graduate and alumni board member, originated the idea of the Duck Race. Always one to bring creativity and enthusiasm to every endeavor she had tackled Joan who has also served as an alumni board president. When someone suggested a golf outing to raise funds, Joan said it would be too limiting and too ordinary. She wanted something fun, like rubber duckies that could be numbered and corresponding tickets on which people would put their names.But what to do with the ducks? A suggestion was made to drop them by helicopter onto the RHS/HHS football game or to put them into a cement mixer or on a water slide with the first one at the bottom being the winner. Joan countered those suggestions with “Ducks don’t fly, and they’re not indigenous to slides or cement mixers.”
On the other hand, Joan pointed out that ducks swim and the Grand River winds throughout the area. Kathy knew of a company that manufactured toy duckies and contacted them for an order of 2,000. The RHS alumni recognized that the race was going to take a huge effort. After some contemplation but not much doubt, the group contacted the Harvey alumni to see if they wanted to be partners in the race. Just the year before, the two groups had worked together, with great success, to celebrate the 50th football game between the two schools. That year people traveled from all corners of the country to commemorate the “Battle of Painesville” by participating in pre-game ceremonies and the half-time show. Hence the name Grand Riv-Har Duck Race came about.
Ronald Balogh, president of the Harvey association, says, “The first race was, I believe, in the Grand River at Kiwanis Recreation Park before the HHS/RHS game. The Harvey Alumni Band marched onto the Main Street bridge, faced the duckies on the river and played a fanfare and some fight songs to start the race. I remember the marching part because the left-right foot motion set the bridge to swaying. We could all feel it, and I stopped the band, and we walked the rest of the way to the center of the bridge. Later, one of my alumni band members shared with me that he had felt the swaying and thought he was having a heart attack.”
The Painesville City and Concord fire departments had donated “booms” to catch the ducks , but when they came down the river, two of them “escaped” to Lake Erie, and the alumni determined the width of the river was not quite right at the Main Street location. Some years later, the race was moved to Wyman Park just south of Painesville.
The first race and several thereafter featured student participation; the two Key Clubs helped, and the National Honor Society sold tickets at both schools. Alumni members sold duck tickets at Party in the Park and were in the Concord Community Days Parade. There was a “duck holeplugging party” to put silicone caulking in the bottom of the ducks so they wouldn’t sink, a very labor-intensive endeavor. Sponsorships were sold to businesses and individuals to help defray the early expenditures and add to the profit. A total profit of almost $2,540 was made at the first race, and that was after buying the ducks, buying a duck costume, and awarding the $500 to the winner. That first winner was Jacquie Wolf, who has ironically been the leader in ticket sales many years over for the RHS association, which awarded one scholarship of $750 that year.
In 2003 the race was held at Recreation Park after the RHS vs. HHS varsity game. The race was moved to Wyman Park in 2004 and has remained there. After each race, the ducks are dried off, bagged according to numbers, and then stored; at first they were in a shed at the park and then in a closet at RHS. The Saturday morning after the RHS/HHS football game became the yearly permanent date choice. Once RHS became the storage site, Donald Pomfrey, RHS alumnus, was in charge of getting people together to haul the bags of ducks in his truck to Wyman Park and then collect them to take back. Starting in 2013, Hardy Animal Nutrition became the major sponsor, so the official name became “Hardy Animal Nutrition Grand Riv-Har Duck Race.”
All years between its beginning and this year have seen the expansion of the event, and Don for RHS and Ron for HHS have become the leaders of the effort. The two men have put in countless hours overseeing ticket distribution, publicity, and organization of other alumni and volunteers to sell tickets at booths at Party in the Park, Concord Community Days, Taste of Painesville, and others. Jeremy Wilder has donated all the tickets for several years in a row. John Murphy, Harvey alumnus and Painesville businessman, purchased hundreds of dollars’ worth of tickets over the years until his passing this spring. When he won door prizes, he always donated them to Forbes House. Joan Parks retired recently as scholarship chairperson after 17 years of overseeing applications and leading selection committees. The amount of tabulating and bookkeeping that Don, Ron and Joan have done is huge. Although Don is officially retiring from the event as of this year, he stresses that “The camaraderie of the group from Day 1 assured future success – many hard-working people, all for a good cause.”
Of the workers over the years, Ron says, “Each person fills a niche in the effort.” The alumni associations have been able to triple and quadruple the amount of scholarship money available to applicants. Ron and Don have spent a great deal of time during winter months for the past 16 years getting prepared for the next race. Meetings of both alumni groups together typically begin in late May or early June and continue once each month until race day. Emails and phone calls are prolific all summer between members, volunteers and sponsors, who, in their generosity, form the backbone of the profits. Every effort is made to reward sponsors with advertising at local events, in sports programs, and on social media. The first prize has remained $500 each year. The total profit this year was $8,645.67, the second highest ever, coming in just under last year’s record-breaker.
Race day itself is always a combination of excitement, fun and some anxiety about the caprices of Ohio weather. Frequent checks on the depth and movement of the water start a week ahead of time. As workers assemble on race day, they have many questions for each other: “Did you remember the clipboards? Do we need more towels? Who will unload the booms? Has Dennis been here yet with the donuts? Do we need to go to Plan B?” The younger folks tend to get the responsibility of wading into the river to drop the ducks in, catch them in the boom, and call out the first number across the finish line. Occasionally the river has been too dry for launching or the rapids too dangerous for wading, but the workers make every effort to stay true to tradition and keep ‘em swimmin.’