With community celebration coming up, a toast to those who made it memorable
Riverfront Rendezvous is here again, and thousands of area residents will flock to Pfiffner Pioneer Park for three days of music, food and good times with family and friends.
In Stevens Point, there are only two real homecomings. One is Trivia, the other Riverfront Rendezvous. Right?
This year, as our family prepares to rock on the riverfront once more, we do so with glittering memories of two departed friends who left us in the past year. Their passing reminds us of the simplest of life’s lessons: Have fun while you can. The old saying “party like there’s no tomorrow” bears some truth, because one day there won’t be. Indeed, we partied with these friends on Riverfront weekends for many years.
Karen Ryan and Steve Koppa who linger in our memories, Karen, left about four months ago, Steve almost a year now. They were both central figures in the little south side celebrations that marked our lives when the kids were young and we were, well, younger.
Steve, a longtime friend from Wausau, lived a most unconventional and colorful life. Lean and handsome, a lifelong bachelor, he ascribed to the old Tom Waits lyric, “Don’t have to ask permission just to go out fishin.’” He also said what he wanted when he wanted. Take it or leave it. The kids loved him, even though he was rough. Our daughters Evonne and Laura have among their earliest memories those of him wildly swinging them in circles from their heels.
For Riverfront, Stevie Boy, as I called him, used to ride his bicycle down from his home in Wausau. He was usually accompanied by one or another attractive and self-confident girlfriend. They had to be to hang with this guy. They would stay with us at our Strongs Avenue home during the festival. Our two kids often had a friend or two over for the weekend, too, so the house was full for a few glorious days.
But it really started rocking when Karen, Matt and their tribe came along. They lived around the corner on Church Street with their four kids, Evan, Clinton, Morgan and Dylan. Our families were tight. Karen and Matt were among our closest friends. My wife, Nick, and Karen, or Ali, as we called her, had a special friendship reserved for two ladies. Matt and I were buddies through thick or thin, too.
Together and with our kids, we celebrated Halloween and other occasions, but none with such vigor as the Riverfront gathering. Other friends and family came and went over the years and were always welcome to partake of the homemade sangria. Their kids sometimes brought friends; the more the merrier. But when you got down to it, we didn’t need much beyond our core. We were tight.
Karen worked for railroads that moved freight through the Stevens Point yards. The railroad always rolls, so even on the Fourth of July she sometimes had to work part of the day. No matter. We busied with food and beverage preparation in a festive manner. At some point, they would come dribbling down the sidewalk, usually a few at a time. The party officially began when Karen came along, wearing a summer outfit coordinated down to her dainty shoes and balancing some spectacular dessert creation she had somehow found time to make.
She was a Peoria girl and carried a hint of southern charm. She was tough as nails, had to be in that railroad world and with four spirited kids. She was also a great mom and a fine lady. Her interest in our kids was complete. “Sit down here, Miss Evonne, and tell me about your life,” Karen would say. I would listen in to pick up things I didn’t know.
Soon, we would be sharing good food and drink, listening listening to some jams and laughing at life. Ah, the music, always central to the celebration. The kids were free to do as they wished, completely at ease. The hours went like seconds, and before we knew, it was time to go north, to the Ole’ Wisconse, there to party on.
Down at Riverfront, we’d find a spot to spread blankets and chairs. Depending on their ages, the kids could roam a bit, a rite of the young at Riverfront. When Karen’s boys were real young, they’d crawl all over Steve, practicing their wrestling skills. If he didn’t relish it, he tolerated it, because they were relentless. This could go on for an hour. The boys would be ringing wet in the summer heat. One of Steve’s tricks was to tie their socks in knots while they still wore them. I can hear them squealing to this day.
Ah, the music. There were some great acts over the years, and our kids became music lovers in part because of that shared heritage. But every song ends, and eventually we would point toward to the south side party headquarters, for cheap fireworks and more laughs. Toward midnight, these dear friends would head back down the sidewalk, and the party was officially over.
Come the next day, Stevie Boy and his girlfriend would get on their bikes and ride. I would look out on the little bits and pieces left in the yard and driveway, take the broom and get to work.
It won’t be anything like that around our home this year. Kids grow up, we’ve moved, life takes people in different directions, and this year, death came knocking. The old south side parties are a thing of the past. But it’s OK. Party on, Stevie Boy and Ali would say. It’s time to make new memories, and we will. But not without toasting two dear friends.