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Great Lake is the perfect background for homecoming bonfire

Waukegan High School's traditional Homecoming 2013 bonfire was touched off about half-hour after sunset Wednesday Oct. 2 following program thincluded

Waukegan High School's traditional Homecoming 2013 bonfire was touched off about a half-hour after sunset on Wednesday, Oct. 2, following a program that included live music and the crowing of the Homecoming king and queen.| Dan Moran/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 3, 2013 2:41AM



Not every school in America has an opportunity to stage its homecoming bonfire on the shore of a Great Lake, so Waukegan High School decided about four years ago to take the extra steps required to make such an event possible.

The recipe involves everything from the 27 buses needed to safely transport students both to and from Waukegan Municipal Beach to the six gallons of kerosene that were splashed on a 10-foot pile of brush as twilight fell on Wednesday, Oct. 2.

“That’s some storm damage (and) tree trimming from the Glen Flora Armory,” said District 60 building engineer Dave Minnoch of the pile of branches ringed with yellow crowd-control tape in the middle of the south beach.

“We’ll throw some kerosene on it, get a torch and just light it up,” added Minnoch, who noted that he wasn’t originally scheduled to be the keeper of the fire. “I got this one by default — the other guy got sick, so I got to come down here tonight.”

That act of improvisation aside, bringing the bonfire back to the beach after years at McAree Field near the Brookside Avenue campus is an operation that requires near-military preparation and precision.

First and foremost, there’s the act of getting hundreds of students to the lakeshore without creating a major traffic headache on Seahorse Drive, the winding, one-mile roadway that serves as the only path in and out of the area.

Motorists approaching the harbor Wednesday evening were directed to a shuttle-bus location near the Waukegan Yacht Club at Pershing Road and Clayton Street, with no drop-offs allowed at the beach. Groups of students, including athletes and band members, were also brought in directly from the high school campuses.

According to school district spokesman Nicholas Alajakis, shuttle buses have been used for the beach bonfires in the past, but the 2013 edition featured a new plan to transport students back to specific drop-off points around the city after the smoke cleared.

“We’ve always shuttled them here, and parents have dropped them off at Seahorse Drive,” said Alajakis. “For the past three years, we did that, and parents would pick them up there.

“What we found was that (afterward), students would congregate in that area, congregate downtown, and then you’d have several dozen students just sort of walking around downtown waiting for parents to pick them up. With it being dark at that time, we didn’t want to put our students at risk.”

The plan for 2013 was to shuttle participants back to 20 different neighborhood sites, including not only the high schools but also elementary and middle school parking lots. Special drop-off points were also arranged for students who live in Park City and the Woodland Village apartments on Dugdale Road.

The arriving buses began to roll in around 6 p.m., or about 30 minutes before the early-October sunset. Pre-bonfire activities on the summerlike evening included casual games of sand volleyball and the selection of the Homecoming 2013 King and Queen, which was revealed when finalists reached into gift bags to see if theirs contained a white tie or a pearl necklace.

The winners were seniors Eric Irizarry and Ariana Reiff, who were crowned while standing on a flatbed trailer before a cheering throng.

Asked for the secret to winning the honor, Irizarry shrugged and said “we know a lot of people, and we’re nice to people, too.”

By 7 p.m., with darkness settling in, Minnoch deployed the kerosene and used some of it to soak a rag tied around the end of a five-foot stick. He touched off his torch and worked his way around the brush, igniting pockets of flame that quickly swept upward and consumed the entire pile.

Athletic director Sam Taylor can be counted among those who prefer the Lake Michigan background to just another open field when it comes to renewing the bonfire tradition.

“I did several when I was an assistant principal at McAree Field, and this is my fourth down here at the lakefront,” he said. “This rocks compared to there — being on the water, going back to a tradition (from) the ’50s when they used to come down here. It’s cool to bring back a Waukegan tradition.”



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