Our Town

Polka party for the people; how else would we celebrate?

by Susan Kampmeier

If there's one thing Stevens Point knows how to do, it's throw a good party.

That was the case Wednesday night. Hundreds of city residents turned out to christen the Clark Street bridge in a style that reflects Stevens Point as well as the Wisconsin River does: We had a polka dance on the brand-new bridge.

It was an evening that showed off Stevens Point for what it is -- a down-to-earth city that's proud of its rich Polish heritage, and a place where residents believe in taking joy in accomplishments large and small. In short, it showed our community spirit.

A few out-of-towners who heard about the bridge dance just chuckled.

"Leave it to Stevens Point people to go throw a polka party on a bridge of all things," was the gist of more than one comment I heard. In almost every case, there was a sigh inserted, and I could almost hear the other person rolling his or her eyes, as if to imply that spending on October evening on a new bridge -- dancing, no less, to such tunes as "Roll Out The Barrel" -- was some sort of public works faux pas.

Well, why the heck shouldn't we celebrate? This was the first new Clark Street bridge built in almost 75 years. And, for nearly seven months our city was without a major transportation link. Gone was the shortcut to Wisconsin Rapids, the easy way to Marshfield, or, for west side residents, the most visible link to the rest of Stevens Point.

OK, I'll admit that polkas aren't part and parcel of the usual form of celebration at the end of a public works project. Most times, a bunch of stuffy old elected officials call on a few of their equally stuffy cohorts who are a little higher up the political ladder -- and usually one of whom, at least, is up for another term in office and obligated to come press the flesh with the "little people" -- so they can do something wildly creative, like wield a great big pair of scissors to cut a ribbon while the masses clap weakly and turn their attention to the hunt for the beer truck or hors d'oeuvres table.

But, instead of going with the expected -- and bland -- Point did what it should've. It had a party for the people. Absent were the rambling speeches that are as much fun to witness as drying paint.

Instead, the project manager and his polka band picked up their instruments and offered up a night of toe-tapping fun for those whose hard-earned dollars ultimately funded the project -- the taxpayers. There were young families and retired couples, students and business leaders, and, yes, there were public officials.

I slipped out of work for a few minutes Wednesday night to visit the polka party. I couldn't resist. At the Journal offices, we could hear the strains of assorted polkas drifting over the downtown, as if announcing the end to a long, financially dry season for many merchants, and an even longer detour to the Highway HH bridge. I simply had to see what all the fuss was about.

As musicians nimbly whipped through one polka after another, residents of all ages twirled and bounced to the beat on the pristine deck. Some folks set up their lawn chairs on the concrete median to ensure they had the best seats in the house. Others strolled from one side of the span to the other, greeting friends, neighbors, and business acquaintances on the way. Enterprising students set up a booth to sell pizza slices and cans of soda pop to hungry revelers. Almost everyone who came took time to walk along the bridge, view the decorative lights and peer over the new railing at the waters of the river as it glistened in the waning autumn sunlight.

All in all, it was the kind of evening that comes and goes too quickly. I, for one, was still cheerful as the end of my shift at work drew near, as if the bouncy beat of the polkas I'd heard somehow buoyed me through the evening. And, when I saw the cars passing over the bridge the next day, a smile tugged at my lips.

Like many others who attended Wednesday's event, some day I'll probably tell someone how the whole town was invited to a polka dance the night before the orange construction barricades were lifted and the bridge was opened to traffic.

To ensure future generations don't forget about our past or this project, our city leaders are holding a dedication ceremony at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the base of the bridge near Bank One. They're filling a time capsule with mementos of the Clark Street bridge project from this time around, including a green and white bridge token commemorating the bridge dance. If you can, take time to drop by for the event and soak up a little history.

But if you can't make the ceremony, remember to smile the next time you use the bridge. Enjoy the easy trip to downtown or the west side after using one that wasn't so much fun for more than half a year. And for heaven's sake, don't fight the urge to polka when your feet hit the bridge's pavement.

That is, after all, one of the best ways to celebrate when you live here in Point.

(Kampmeier is news editor at the Journal)

editorial in the Stevens Point Journal, Saturday, October 14, 2000