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Schend spins a 20-year tradition of Families in the Park

Mike Schend won’t be catching clowns any time soon, but Thursday he’ll be having a fun time.

He and about 2,000 other people.

Schend is director of Hood River Community Education, and the impresario for a beloved summer tradition: Families in the Park.

“It is one of my favorite things I do as far as programming,” he said. “We touch a lot of people.”

The music series, a sort of weekly community barbecue, concludes its 20th year Thursday with a 7 p.m. show at Jackson Park by Pepe and the Bottle Blonds. (Food will be for sale starting at 6 p.m.; please see page A5 for details.)

Schend, who has been in his job since 1980, has seen his share of acts since the days the Families in the Park stage was a set of portable risers or a flatbed truck. Once, serving as emcee in a 1980s show, he was supposed to catch a jumping clown.

“I thought he was joking, but then he was flying at me and I had no choice, and he knocked me flat on my butt. I thought I’d been killed, he knocked my wind out, and the crowd thought it was great.”

Families in the Park started slow, with an average of 200 or so people — a tenth of this year’s crowds. Then, in 1986 a Hood River Valley High School construction class, with help from the community, built the stage that is now a fixture at Jackson Park. Schend contacted the city and got approval to build the stage, citizens raised $5,400 toward the project, and the students got help from electricians, excavators and other experts.

With the prominent stage nestled at the lower end of the park bowl, “that’s when it took off,” Schend said.

“The first four years were pretty rough, but we hung in there. We stayed with it and look at it now.

“Everyone coming there is happy,” he said. “I get such a kick out of the different age groups. We have wheelchairs and walkers and kids who are barely walking, and everyone is enjoying the same entertainment.”

In the early years, it was two shows during August. The first acts were a mime and the Mid-Columbia Sinfonietta.

“The Sinfonietta played a couple of years, and one year the drummer didn’t show up,” Schend remembers. “And they looked at me, and said they needed a drummer. I said, ‘I beg pardon, I’ve never played an instrument, I don’t read music very well.’ They said, ‘well, we need a drummer, we can’t go on without one.’” Director Dorothy McCormick taught him his rhythms and cues, and the show went on.

“Everyone said I did okay but I can’t imagine I didn’t screw up somewhere,” Schend said.

Drumming up support for Families in the Park is no longer an issue. The program was twice-monthly in the early years; the every-Thursday concept kicked in when the stage was built. Schend said he is often asked why he doesn’t schedule Families in the Park all summer.

“It takes a lot of money to do it, and we’re lucky just to do that. Some communities do one or two, and we have a whole series,” he said.

Sprint is the lead sponsor, and this year the individual nights were primarily funded by KeyBank, US Bank, Mt. Hood Meadows, Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, and Citizens For Responsible Growth, with backing from 65 other businesses, and civic groups.

“Every sponsor so far says they want to come back,” Schend said. “We have new people approach and ask how they can get involved. It seems to be picking up steam for next year.”

Schend said every week someone will come up to him and say, “this is why I love this town — thank you for doing this.”

Schend added, “It’s one of those things that makes Hood River so special.”

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