Whatever it takes: Volunteers make sure guests can enjoy the celebration

September 2012 Posted in Community, People

By Kristine Thomas

Mount Angel Oktoberfest
Sept. 13, 14, 15, 16
Thursday – Saturday,
11 a.m. – midnight
Sunday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Neil Jorgenson has cleaned sauerkraut off Mount Angel streets at 4:30 a.m. Bill Bischoff has spent hours juggling the complaints and concerns of vendors and Mount Angel citizens. Dick Fennimore has emptied seemingly endless lines of trash receptacles and picked up cigarette butts for days on end.

It’s all done in the name of Mount Angel Oktoberfest and with the goal creating a great festival.

Fennimore, Bischoff and Jorgensen, who are three of the 19 Mount Angel Oktoberfest board of directors, don’t complain about tackling dreary tasks because they know they can count on a fellow volunteer by their side sharing in the work. It’s work that gets done because of a common vision.

“Our goal is to provide our visitors with an authentic German folk festival with quality entertainment, good food and libations with outstanding facilities,” Fennimore said.

It’s probably easier to calculate the number of German sausages and pounds of sauerkraut sold than it would be to accurately access the number of volunteer hours by board and community members.

The Mount Angel Oktoberfest board of directors 2012 is Chris Bischoff, president; Bill Bischoff, first vice president; Dave Kohler, second vice president; Dick Fennimore, secretary; Mike Unrein, treasurer; Kyle Beyer, Monica Bochsler, Jeff Cuff, Michele Fennimore, John Gooley, Gary Grassman, Ron Hammer, Neil Jorgenson, Ted Schacher, Eric Schmidt, Peter Schmidt, Liz Schmidt, Nick Splonski and Pete Wall. The Associate Board of Directors is Jeff DeSantis, Randy Grace, John Hassler, Gayle Schmidt and Scott Wall.

Bill Bischoff said he, his fellow board members, and more than 7,500 volunteers take pride in organizing and hosting one of the biggest Oktoberfest celebrations in the Northwest.

“It makes it even better when we are able to donate back to the community,” Bill Bischoff said. “It is not always easy, in fact, very seldom is it easy. No one on the board is paid and there are usually many trials that come with each job. Ultimately, we all look forward to the festival every year and we also look forward to being able to make a difference in some group’s bottom line to enable them to accomplish their goals.”

The work doesn’t end once the festival is done, Michelle Fennimore said.

The board members start planning for the next year’s festival less than a week after they close the festival on Sunday night, Fennimore said.

The dynamics are what makes the board successfully work together, she added.

“Not everyone wants or needs to be in charge and we all are willing to do whatever is necessary to get the job done,” Fennimore said. “We have a common goal:  Put on the best festival possible.”

Six board members took time to share what it takes to organize Mount Angel’s four-day Oktoberfest, this year Sept.  13 to 16.

Bill Bischoff

The first vice president and food booth director, Bill Bischoff said navigating 54 food booths to their designations in three hours is like solving a brainteaser.

To get a food booth from point A to point B often requires moving two or three food booths this way or that way to move the first booth forward, he said.

“It’s moving piece-by-piece to get things in place like solving a puzzle,” he said. “Every year we receive compliments on how smooth and organized the booth set up has become.”

The preparation to have the booths at the festival begins in January and evolves until late summer when contacts, menus and arrival times are finalized, he added.

Bill Bischoff also is responsible for making sure all areas of downtown Mount Angel are ready to accommodate thousands of visitors.

“We work closely with the city, schools, police and fire departments, local utilities, and local businesses and residents to formalize procedures to make all this a reality,” he said.

While change is inevitable and required at times, Bill Bischoff sid it is often welcomed with various levels of enthusiasm. He said Oktoberfest board members validate and try to accommodate everyone, “but there is no way to make everyone happy with an event this large. Solving conflict and trying to find happy ground for everyone is a constant struggle.”

Just as the leaves gradually turn from green to vibrant oranges, yellows and reds to signal the start of fall, there are activities happening around Labor Day that signify to community members Oktoberfest is near.

One misconception people have, Bill Bischoff said, is preparing for the event requires a few days in September.

“The getting-ready process is year round for most of the board and I don’t think that most festivalgoers realize the time commitment for all of us and dedicated hours spent on making this happen every year,” he said. “Most people also do not realize the problems faced by many residents here in town, especially those in the core area. The Mount Angel citizens tolerate a lot of headaches from the problems created by having such a large event basically in their front yard.”

Although each board member has his or her own responsibility, everyone is willing to pitch in to get a job done, he said.

“Everyone just steps up and makes it happen because we all have the same common goal – put on the best festival we can, keep all the visitors and locals as happy as we can,  and be able to give away as much as possible to all the local charities, civic groups, and non-profits,” he said.

Neil JorgensonKristin and Neil Jorgenson with their twins, Finn and Liesl

As the director of streets and sanitation, Neil Jorgenson’s title alone says a great deal about his responsibilities. For Jorgenson, the job is pretty simple – keep the town clean and organized. By creating a clean and easy-access festival, once the visitors arrive, everything else – from the music to the food – speaks for itself.

His favorite part of the festival, he said, is the “food, food and food.”

Although each board member is unique, what makes the group work, Jorgenson said, is “we are all a little crazy and like to work. I think small town dynamics is a big part (of the group’s success) and good leadership,” he said.

Jorgenson gives his time “so others might give theirs.”

Michele Fennimore

For Weingarten chair Michele Fennimore, the more than 700 hours she dedicates to Oktoberfest, is about being part of something “bigger than myself and being able to give back to so many.  I am very fortunate to be able to be a part of this truly wonderful organization.”

Organization, delegating responsibilities and following up on countless details are vital to the success of the festival, she said.

“Thankfully, I have a great team that works really well together, so they make my job a lot easier,” she said.

Along with her fellow board members, Fennimore works more than 17 hours a day during the festival. Each morning, the board meets for breakfast at 7 a.m. – even though some may have gone to bed around 2 or 3 a.m. – to recap the previous 24 hours and plan for the next.

“When people walk in, I want them to know how glad we are that they have chosen to come see us,” Fennimore said. “We smile and welcome our guests, no matter how bad our feet may hurt or how tired we may be. We do our best to walk around and talk with people and answer any questions they may have, give directions or even make a beer or wine recommendation. We are truly glad they are there and want them to enjoy the time they spend with us.”

Dick Fennimore

Dick Fennimore encourages visitors to Oktoberfest to take a couple minutes and watch the volunteers.

They are hard to miss – from the people serving delicious food to the people taking tickets at the wine or beer gardens.

“Whatever their area of responsibility, they have a smile on their face and are truly happy to be part of the festival,” Fennimore said. “The volunteers do an amazing job!”

As the vice president of venues and chairman for the Alpinegarten and Prostgarten, Fennimore is responsible for ensuring the venue teams have sufficient product, defined processes, adequate staffing levels and unlimited support from the executive board.

“The venues are one of the high visibility areas for Oktoberfest,” he said. “Our goal is to provide our visitors with an authentic German folk festival with quality entertainment, good food and libations with outstanding facilities. The venue teams put everything they have into the providing our visitors with an experience that will not disappoint.”

Fennimore said the volunteers are keys to the success of Oktoberfest.

Add to that, he said, a dedicated board that works year-round, attending one to two meetings a month, another week per year repairing or fixing facilities and then the long days during the festival.

Fennimore said what can be learned from the board is that members have each other’s back.

“The Oktoberfest board has a culture and values, similar to family. We can argue like brothers and sisters at times, but when crunch time comes, we take care of each other,” he said. “Oktoberfest is an amazing thing to be a part of; the camaraderie is almost overwhelming at times.”

Ron Hammer

As chairman of the Biergarten, Ron Hammer is responsible for making certain the beer is cold and pouring, the music is playing and patrons have a safe and fun place to enjoy themselves.

“Well, you know all is good when the entire dance floor and surrounding area is full of people dancing hands in the air, when DSB is playing the last set of the night. You know they are having a great time,” he said.

Beyond the months of planning for the festival, Hammer and his team of volunteers are responsible for hosting guests at the Biergarten from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., with the last beer poured at midnight.

“With everything going right, you can have the backside closed up and home in bed by 2 a.m.,” Hammer said. “Then it is up for the breakfast meeting to discuss the previous day’s events and anything we need to take care of. Then we head to the Beirgarten and start polishing everything up to be ready to open by 11:30.”

Hammer estimates he and his six associates work about 588 hours from set up, to the festival to putting everything away.

The least glamorous part of his responsibilities is cleaning the venue in the morning, especially the bathrooms.

What makes the work worthwhile, he said, is seeing the older couples visit the Beirgarten to dance the polkas.

“Unfortunately, this tradition has been slowly going away, but we have some young groups that are dancing now to hopefully keep that alive,” he said. “Every afternoon for years Gene Sperle and his wife would be dancing away. It was so sad for me the first year after Mrs. Sperle passed away, but Gene was there and found other partners to dance with him. Clark and Marlene Hanson are another couple that you can see most afternoons dancing. I wish I had the talent that these two guys have and a partner as good as theirs.”

Chris BischoffChris Bischoff

Oktoberfest president Chris Bischoff said there is a good reason why Mount Angel Oktoberfest is a four-day festival.

There isn’t enough time to do everything in one day, he said.

“If you haven’t sifted through all the Arts and Crafts, sampled the majority of the food booths, caught a concert at St. Mary’s Church, taken a picture with loved ones in front of the Harvest Monument, danced in the street and in the other three venues, savored a couple of fantastic German beers, checked out the car show, and watched your kids play their way through the Kindergarten; then you have done yourself a disservice and simply must come back to make it right for your own sake,” he said.

What makes Oktoberfest a success is the tradition of serving in order to help others, he said.

“In small towns like Mount Angel, community service is a part of growing up,” he said.

“The parents in this community are basically raising the next generation of doers. That kind of stuff is few and far between in large cities, but here, we are loaded with selfless volunteers.”

Chris Bischoff was 21 when he first got involved with Oktoberfest.

“Back then, I put in the work because I liked throwing the biggest party in the Northwest,” he said. “Now, it’s not too much different than that, but what has changed for me over the years is knowing how many organizations this festival helps every year.

“What a blessing to be a part of this.”

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