Behind the scenes of Hobo Day

Nick Lowrey

It all began last spring when Abby Settje was chosen to be the 2012 Hobo Day Grand Pooba.

The significance of Hobo Day 2012 was anything but lost on her; it was, after all, the 100th anniversary of what has become the largest one-day event in the Dakotas. Settje assembled her committee in March with the help of Nick Wendell, the Director of Student Engagement and newly appointed Hobo Day adviser. Applications were sorted through, interviews were held and at least one member was chased down.

“It was a combination of her harassing me and me wanting to do it,” said fifth semester nursing student and committee historian Maria DeCesare with a smile.

The 2012 committee found themselves at the crest of what would become one of the biggest waves of change that Hobo Day had seen in nearly 20 years. For one thing, the committee was splitting away from the University Program Council, which in and of itself was a big undertaking.

“You would never assume that putting on a parade would be that hard or that putting on an event that has 100 years of history would be so hard,” Wendell said.

There were also the changes that needed to be made to the Hobo Day events themselves. Perhaps the biggest worry was the parade. Each of the nine committee members coordinate or help coordinate one aspect of the parade from security to dignitaries to transportation and everything in between.

This year the committee also decided to try something new in an effort to increase student interest in float building. They called it the Fantastic Floats Program.

“I don’t think it would be a surprise to anyone, me saying that the feeling around Hobo Day, the Hobo spirit, has been declining every year … So we thought, this is a big year, let’s take this and try to jump start something new,” Settje said

In the past the Hobo Day Committee has focused mostly on the parade, while UPC planned the events held throughout the week. This year, with the split from UPC, committee members have also found themselves planning and organizing the Hobo Week events, with the exception of Cavorts and Miss Homelycoming.

“Our positions aren’t limited to the jobs we were assigned, we have to know everyone else’s job too,” said Courtney DeMers, the committee’s transportation coordinator.

Change is never easy. Especially when combined with an anniversary of an event with the size and scope of Hobo Day.

“We took on a lot this year,” Wendell said “I think in some ways it’s been really positive, but I think what you forget when you move away from an established organization is the infrastructure that is already built there.”

The lack of UPC’s equipment and experience in planning events on campus has been a challenge for the Hobo Day Committee, especially in the area of paperwork.

“There’s a lot that goes into event planning on campus that people don’t really think about,” DeMers said. “Basically you have to go around and get approval from any organization that will be associated with the event.”

This year’s event The Bum-Over, which Demers has helped plan, is one example. The event was originally slated to be outside with burn barrels, which took a mountain of paperwork to get approved. Then South Dakota’s weather threatened to be wet and cold, which forced a change of venue.

“Things go wrong, and things have to be changed,” DeMers said.

For most students, Wednesday evenings are time for a much needed break from classwork. For the nine members of the 2012 Hobo Day Committee, however, those evenings are entirely different.

Every week since returning to campus this fall the committee members have been spending their time divided between class, work and Hobo Day. For DeCesare, who is just beginning her nursing course work at a Sioux Falls hospital, that division can be tough.

“It’s been really stressful on me,” DeCesare said. “I work better under pressure.”

Oct. 17 found the committee members hunched over a plastic folding table surrounded by boxes of t-shirts, hand painted signs and other Hobo Day themed debris. Normally they’d have a conference room upstairs, but the reservation had somehow been lost in the confusion that is the final days before Hobo Week.

“Our meetings are usually more structured than this,” Settje said.

The meeting started at 6 p.m. and centered on the parade. It started with three committee members absent. They were delivering a truckload of cardboard to various float-building sites around Brookings as part of the Fantastic Floats Program. It would be a short meeting, as the committee was scheduled to hold their second parade volunteer meeting an hour later.

Settje explained the parade route using a map of campus to walk the members through the route and staging areas. As promised, the meeting was short but included the unveiling and an explanation of the Hobo Flag of peace by Wendell.

“Parade morning is my favorite few minutes of the year,” Wendell said. “It’s so exhilarating.”

It was, if anything, a typical Wednesday in the life of the Hobo Day committee who have spent nearly two months working non-stop to build Hobo Day 2012 almost from the ground up. But the work started long before Aug. 27.

Planning began almost from day one. Settje said the committee recognized early on that there were going to be some changes to Hobo Day – beyond the split from UPC.

“This year, since it is the hundredth, we thought this was the time to sort of revamp the old traditions,” Settje said.

Those changes were all geared toward increasing student engagement with the events. Doing away with the spirit point competition and replacing it with the Grand Pooba award was just one of many tough decisions that had to be made.

“One of the old events that was really popular was the Bum Olympics and the scavenger hunt, but they ended up doing the same thing every year,” Settje said.

The committee’s work was not paused over summer. They visited a number of towns last summer as part of the Bummobile parade tour. Dressed as bums, the committee would drive the erstwhile Ford Model T through parades throughout eastern South Dakota, going as far south as Yankton.

“There’s always SDSU alumni in towns that we went to, which was fun,” said committee historian Scott DesLauries.

Hobo Day now has a century’s worth of alumni, many of whom will be present for the parade and many more of whom want some input on the 100th anniversary celebration.

“There’s always been alumni support, but this year there’s a lot of alumni,” Settje said. “They’re really passionate, so that’s fun, but then again, I think it takes some convincing that things that worked 20 years ago might not work today.”

That only adds to the pressure on Settje and the rest of the committee who are facing the first and what could be the only year the committee is separate from UPC if things go badly.

“At times it is overwhelming, but you have to keep your eyes on the bigger picture,” said float coordinator Erica Coomes.

In the end, despite all the worry and stress, there is nothing the committee can do to stop the clock.

“The thing about Hobo Day is you know it’s going to come no matter what, and you know it’s going to be great no matter what, there are just ways you can enhance it,” Wendell said.