Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 29, 2012

"... 82 in position. Only 918 left to go!”

Any planned gathering of folks requires someone to take the lead ... someone to be the event organizer. This is true whether it is just a family reunion or something like Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. And for a good outcome, that planner requires an almost obsessive attention to detail, while also keeping an eye on the big picture. A sense of humor also helps as things can - and inevitably do - go wrong at times. I learned this while organizing special events for Kansas State University’s Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Celebrations for the queen were scheduled across the world in British Commonwealth nations. But by far the biggest was the June 3 Thames Pageant in London. The 1,000-vessel flotilla formed at Battersea Bridge and traveled downstream to Tower Bridge, covering seven miles and going under 14 bridges in all.

Five of us watched the pageant on the “telly” from our apartment on the border with Wales. Husband Art, daughters Mariya and Katie and daughter-in-law Lacey relaxed while the collection of boats and ships moved slowly down the Thames on a day with typically variable British weather.

But I was not quite so relaxed. The event planner in me prompted me to take copious notes, recording the many details involved in such a massive undertaking. I could not imagine the amount of planning needed for a celebration of that magnitude.

As the day progressed, it became colder and wetter. But the enthusiasm of the royal family and the millions of people lining the river route and crowding its bridges didn’t seem dampened in the slightest.

“Weather is one thing no one has any control over whatsoever,” one commentator observed.

It was a comment I could relate to! Back in 2001, I had invited Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois to the K-State campus to give a public lecture. A snowstorm began as he rode the shuttle from the Kansas City airport to Manhattan. I spoke with him at the hotel after he arrived, but the snow closed the university the next day. My driveway was impassable and Simon returned to Illinois without me meeting him. Many of the arrangements, such as scheduling the luncheon that followed the lecture, had to be repeated for his re-scheduled visit.

Thames Pageant Master Adrian Evans said it took two years and 20,000 people to plan the jubilee event. He described it as a kind of choreography. Choreography - coordination - call it what you will, it probably caused more than a few headaches and indigestion among its organizers, who worked countless hours out of the limelight to make sure everything went smoothly. At one point early in the process as the boats were being placed in position for the pageant to begin, one of the organizers said, “OK, we have 82 in position. Only 918 left to go!”

It was believed to be the largest collection of vessels on the river in 350 years. Included were a barge with a 12-ton floating belfry whose eight bells represented the royal family; the Gloriana, a hand-built, 88-foot row barge covered in gold leaf; boats carrying the flags of the Commonwealth nations; 250 rowboats, including Maori canoes, Venetian gondolas and others; the Royal Barge, the “Spirit of Chartwell,” which was decorated with more than 10,000 blooms, and carried the queen, her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, her son, the Prince of Wales and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry; the Dunkirk and other historic vessels; fire and rescue boats; other working boats such as the Welldale, a coal-mining tug from York; canal boats; recreational vehicles and passenger boats. The grand procession ended with a ship carrying the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which provided a concert to mark the conclusion of the day’s events.

I’ve coordinated national conferences over the years that involved people from across the country, and I’ve experienced any number of problems such as audio-visual equipment that failed or travel or illness problems that prevented speakers from attending. But those didn’t even qualify as bumps in the road compared to the issues Evans and his staff had to consider. They were required to follow royal protocol, ensure the security of all involved, close bridges and roads to traffic along the pageant route, provide large viewing screens, make sure local residents and their guests had access to their properties, provide disabled access, and impose parking restrictions. Then, when it was over, they had to clean up.

To my eye, it all came off exceptionally well and had been a beautiful and joyous occasion. Still, I could almost imagine I heard sighs of relief from the organizers after it was over. On the jubilee website, Evans thanked the 1,000 skippers and their crews, “who did a magnificent job bringing their vessels safely onto the river, helping to create a truly majestic spectacle . . . We are all thrilled that two years of careful planning and preparation by so many people has paid off. We very much hope that The Queen enjoyed it as much as we did.”

And it appeared she had. She issued the following statement:

“The events that I have attended to mark my Diamond Jubilee have been a humbling experience. It has touched me deeply to see so many thousands of families, neighbours and friends celebrating together in such a happy atmosphere. But Prince Philip and I want to take this opportunity to offer our special thanks and appreciation to all those who have had a hand in organising these Jubilee celebrations. It has been a massive challenge, and I am sure that everyone who has enjoyed these festive occasions realises how much work has been involved.”

I don’t know if anyone else realized the extent of the behind-the-scenes work, but I certainly did! And somehow I also appreciated it every bit as much as the pageant itself.

Top: the queen's royal barge "Spirit of Chartwell" heading downstream in a picture I captured from the television while we watched the river procession at our apartment on the Wales border; below, weekend work on the London transit system while we were staying in Greenwich required an alternate method to travel to the city. We chose a Thames River service and were startled to discover we boarded adjacent to the royal barge.

Comments? [email protected].
Earlier columns from 2012 may be found at: 2012 Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home