Tom Kacich: Over 50 years, Turkey Trot has evolved into massive event

Tom Kacich: Over 50 years, Turkey Trot has evolved into massive event

Robin Hall admits the first Urbana Park District Turkey Trot wasn't his idea.

Imitation, after all, can be a mother of invention.

"As with most things, somebody else was doing one, and I thought it was a great idea. I thought I'd try it," said Hall, who in November 1968 was the fresh-out-of-college superintendent of recreation for the park district.

And after that first Turkey Trot, which was postponed because of an inch and a half of rain on Thanksgiving and run the following Saturday with what Hall said was "maybe 25 or 30 people," it's amazing the event continued.

But tomorrow's Turkey Trot will be the 50th — a golden anniversary, thus the commemorative long-sleeve T-shirts are golden, sorta — and Robin Hall, 75 years old and still an active walker, will be there.

He'll fire the starter pistol that begins the "race" at about 9 a.m.

"On your mark, get set, go, boom," said Hall, practicing his responsibilities.

The event has modified itself over the years, he said.

"One thing we learned quickly was that the Illinois High School Association did not want students to participate in runs, at least at that time, where they gave first-, second- and third-place ribbons," he said. "That's why we started to give everyone a ribbon, which was good for us. If you participated, you got a ribbon. We sorta lucked into that one."

This year, ribbons will be given to the first 1,000 participants across the finish line of the 1-mile course. But given the favorable weather forecast — sunny, cool temperatures and light winds — there might be 2,000 people there.

Also, Hall said, the Turkey Trot no longer is just another competitive race.

"Among the runners, it probably still is a bit competitive, but it just evolved into more of a social situation. Early on, maybe the moms and dads ran, and then as they got older and had family, they brought their kids with them, and they would walk it," Hall observed.

"We'll have probably a dozen or so people there from my family. That's the way it's been for three or four years. And now, it's us grandparents and parents and kids, and it's a great way to start their Thanksgiving. It's sort of become a tradition for a lot of families."

He's pleased with the success of the Turkey Trot.

"Oh yeah, I'm so happy about it. That's what parks and recreation is all about," he said. "I love that fact that everyone is there; if you want to run, you can run. If you want to walk and chit-chat, that's great.

"Enjoy it; have a good time. People wear turkey hats and get dressed in costumes and other stuff. It's been great to see it grow."

At the inaugural Turkey Trot, the park district gave away two turkeys in a post-race raffle.

"We used to have the drawing for the turkeys at a small stage at the bottom of Cannonball Hill," Hall said. "One of my favorite stories is the time that Mark Johnson, who was on the park district staff, and I were there on the stage. He was drawing the names for the people who won the turkeys. We're on opposite sides of the stage, and my son Charlie was standing there between us. And Mark draws Charlie's name. And he holds it up, and I can read the name, and of course, so can Charlie. And I shake my head 'no.' You know, we shouldn't do that. And Charlie has never let me forget that story, that he won the turkey and I wouldn't let him get it."

"So 13 years ago, Charlie and his wife are up here with their first son who was just 1, and they participate by pushing Drew in the stroller. And Drew wins the drawing for a turkey. So Charlie thought that finally things got evened out."

This year, according to park district spokeswoman Dana Mancuso, the raffle includes a $500 travel voucher, 20 turkeys and numerous other gifts.

There also will be a display of News-Gazette photos from past turkey trots, a table to purchase those golden T-shirts and limited edition Turkey Trot beanies, she said.

Hall said the park district staff gets a lot of credit for the success of the event.

"One of the great things about it that we had, and they continue to have, is the great staff support for the Turkey Trot," he said. "Here's staff coming out on a family holiday to be at that and to register people and to help out and set up the course. It's just been great in so many respects, including the local businesses that have been helping out for years."

A few Turkey Trot related reminders:

— Registration (if you want to enter the raffle) begins at 8 a.m. at the Lake House in Crystal Lake Park.

— Overflow parking is in a special events lot near the corner of Broadway Avenue and Park Street.

— The Turkey Trot is free, but donations will be accepted for the park district's Youth Scholarship Fund that helps provide scholarships for summer camp and other opportunities for children.

Economic interest statements

John Bambenek, a former Champaign school board member and onetime candidate for the Illinois Senate, earlier this week issued a press release critical of Champaign County Board member Josh Hartke for failing to file a statement of economic interests in 2016, as required by state law.

Bambenek said that Hartke could be fined $100 a day for the offense and that the money could be used to "help alleviate the crisis he and his colleagues have created in the first place," a reference to Hartke's support for keeping the Champaign County Nursing Home open.

But there's more to this story. Hartke is hardly the only local official who hasn't filed one of the statements, which are designed to shed light on possible conflicts of interest but barely do so.

The statements filed with the Champaign County clerk are at https://www.champaigncountyclerk.com/government/sei/search.

This year, for example, 10 local officeholders didn't file their statements, although Hartke did.

County Clerk Gordy Hulten said the statements are supposed to be filed with him, but all he can do is send offenders "increasingly stern letters."

"I have no ability to prosecute. I don't know of anyone in the state of Illinois who enforces this," Hulten said.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Wednesday and Sundays. He can be reached at 217-351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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