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Sonoma’s Memorial Day Picnic requires planning & coordination

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011 | Posted by

This year, like every year, Sonoma’s Memorial Day celebration will be followed by a free “All-American Picnic” at Veterans Memorial Hall. About 650 Sonoma Valley residents will devour hamburgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers, macaroni and potato salads, baked beans and potato chips. For dessert, expect brownies, cookies and Clover ice cream. Soft drinks can be enjoyed by all, but  Ravenswood wine will only be poured if you’re over 21.

Organizing a picnic of this size requires a great deal of planning. And not charging for any of it, including the wine, necessitates generous donations of goods, services and time by companies, organizations and individuals.

The entire Memorial Day observance is managed by a committee of local residents who represent Sonoma Valley veteran organizations (see the entire list below). The most prominent part of the celebration involves the official ceremony that honors veterans with a grand march, presentations, benediction, patriotic music and more.

But the committee also views Memorial Day as a perfect time for the community to come together socially, visiting with friends and family in an old-fashioned, small-town way. What better way to foster that than with an All-American Picnic?

While many committee’s members pitch in to help with the picnic, two have major responsibility for carrying it out: Ruth Chambers and Gary Magnani.

“Gary and I figure out what needs to be done, and then we get to work,” Chambers explains. “We coordinate closely. Gary handles the setup — putting chairs up and taking them down, for example. He handles decorating the hall, bringing in the E-Z UP tents, ensuring there’s gas for the BBQ, parking arrangements, so many things.”

Chambers handles those all-important  eats, arranging for food donations, pickup, preparation and a lot more. She is assisted by Lei Poncia, a classmate in the 1960s at Sonoma Valley High School, and by her brother, Leighton Parks.

“All in all,” Chambers says, “it takes about 100 people to pull the picnic together. We start planning about six months out. We’ve done it for quite a few years, so we know what to do now, which really helps.”

Among the picnic’s food donors are Burger King of Santa Rosa, Sonoma Market, Lucky’s, the Swiss Hotel, the Red Grape, Whole Foods and The Palms. Ravenswood Winery donates the wine.

“It’s harder every year,” says Chambers. “This year, with the economy the way it is, I was worried. But our donors always say, ‘Yes, we’ll be there.’ They’re all so generous.”

On-the-ground labor, from hauling supplies to dishing out the baked beans, is just as generously given. Aside from individuals who want to help, Chambers mentions volunteers from the Rotary Club, the Sonoma Hometown Band, Native Daughters and Native Sons of the Golden West, the VFW and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

“So many help out,” says Chambers, “that I’m afraid I’m forgetting some of them.”

But for all the generous donations of goods and time, the picnic is still expensive to put on. “That’s mostly due to the insurance,” says Chambers. “If you have an event, you need insurance,” about $5,000 worth.

For this reason, donations are gratefully accepted at the picnic.

The picnic will take place after the formal ceremonies have ended at Veterans Memorial Hall, located adjacent to the cemetery. The formal ceremony begins at 11 a.m.
The committee in charge of Sonoma’s Memorial Day Service includes, in alphabetical order: Bryan Aubin, Lt. Col. Theodore Chenoweth, USMC (Ret.) Ruth (Parks) Chambers, Robert Leonard, Gary Magnani, Lt. Col. Dennis Meredith, USA (Ret.), Dr. Timothy Norman, Dan Parker, James Parks, Leighton Parks, Bob Smith, Lt. Col. Don Stevens, USAF (Ret.), Fred Unsworth and David Wishingrad.

Suzie Rodriguez

  • Jeani Morrow

    where and what time is picnic?

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      The first sentence says that the picnic follows the Memorial Day event and takes place at Veterans Memorial Hall, but I’ll add that information to the end of the article too – probably a good idea. Thanks for your feedback.

  • Jeani Morrow

    Thank you for your response but I would like to know what time it starts? I live in Rohnert Park and
    would like to attend the picnic.

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Oh, sorry! The ceremony starts at 11, and I’m guessing it will take more than an hour. I think if you planned to arrive between noon and 12:30 you’d be hitting the picnic at a good time. If mobility is not an issue, I would suggest finding parking a few blocks away and walking to the cemetery, which is located immediately adjacent to Veterans Memorial Hall at 126 1st St W, Sonoma, CA 95476.

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Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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