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Longtime Riley Festival volunteer moving on

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Sarah Kesterson, who worked for the Riley Festival for 38 years, was its longtime spokeswoman, booster and volunteer coordinator. She says she hopes to keep working with festivals in the state. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)
Sarah Kesterson, who worked for the Riley Festival for 38 years, was its longtime spokeswoman, booster and volunteer coordinator. She says she hopes to keep working with festivals in the state. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — After 38 years, one of the Riley Festival’s most seasoned leaders is stepping down from her post.

Sarah Kesterson of Greenfield has been volunteering for the festival since the early 1970s in more capacities than she can recount. A former chair of the festival board, she most recently served as the organization’s publicity chair. She also oversaw the downtown Christmas parade and festival put on by the Riley Festival each December.

This week, Kesterson announced her resignation, saying the next time she attends a festival in Greenfield, it will be as a spectator only.

Over the years, Kesterson has had her hand in a little bit of everything Riley Festival-related, having overseen the photography show, James Whitcomb Riley breakfast and Riley queen pageant, among other events. Her work with the festival earned her the governor’s Sagamore of the Wabash award in 2004.

Receiving the honor is just one of Kesterson’s treasured memories of working with the festival.

“I’ve had many wonderful adventures,” she said.

While Kesterson has been one of the festival’s most active volunteers, she said the success of the festival has always been a team effort. She credited the Greenfield Police and Fire departments for their help, as well as her fellow volunteers.

“I’ve loved working with all the volunteers, and they’ve always been so good to help me out,” she said.

Festival Board President Dee Carmichael admits he tried to persuade Kesterson to continue her work with the festival in a more limited capacity after she approached him early this week about stepping down, but Kesterson’s mind was made up.

Carmichael, who has served on the board for about 10 years, said it was Kesterson who helped him find his way when he was a new board member. He depended on her expertise until the time came when he assumed the board’s top leadership position.

“I’m very, very sorry to see her leave,” Carmichael said. “I have enjoyed working with Sarah and appreciate her taking me under her wing when I started and didn’t know anything.”

Carmichael said the Riley Festival would have endured in downtown Greenfield without Kesterson’s leadership, but it would not have expanded to the sizeable event it is today. An estimated 50,000 people attend the three-day event.

Carmichael said he looked to Kesterson as one of his most dedicated workers. When Kesterson’s hand went up to volunteer for a job, he never had any doubt it would be done on time and to the best of her ability.

“She just was very, very passionate,” he said.

Greg Carwein, former longtime board member, said Kesterson encouraged him to get involved with the festival in the early 1990s.

Carwein said Kesterson was known as the face of the festival for many years and seemed to have her hands in every part of the event’s operation.

“Whether it’s marking the streets or getting sponsors or whatever, Sarah was involved with it all,” said Carwein, who also stepped down this year. “I don’t know how she does it.”

Kesterson said while she might not be at the Riley Festival this year in an official capacity, there’s a good chance she’ll attend some of her favorite events the first weekend of October.

Kesterson said she grew especially fond of the festival’s Children’s Parade of Flowers, in which elementary school children lay flowers at the feet of the Riley statue in front of the Hancock County Courthouse.

Kesterson said she’ll probably be there again, camera in hand.

“I love to see the children’s faces,” she said.

Kesterson said she’ll also take advantage of being able to attend other out-of-town events that occur the same weekend as the Riley Festival.

Kesterson said she’s considering volunteering her time with other festivals around the state in order to keep up her certification as a festival director through the Indiana State Festival Association.

But the Riley Festival will always hold a special place in her heart.

“It’s really been a wonderful association,” she said. “I wish them the very best in the future.”

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