Young people in Sycamore and new residents who moved to town after 2011 never met Wally Thurow, known affectionately as “Mr. Pumpkin.” He founded the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival in 1962, and although he lived far away for the last 30 years of his life, made it back every year and lived to see the festival’s 50th anniversary.
I received a phone call in November 2011 and the person on the other end of the line said weakly, “Mr. Pumpkin made a boo-boo.” It was Wally calling from a hospital in Slidell, Louisiana, near his home. He explained he had fallen from his bicycle at the end of his driveway and hit his head. Wally never recovered and died Feb. 3, 2012.
He had called me since he knew Tom Oestreicher and I wanted his notes from an autobiography he had begun a year earlier. Tom had agreed to write the story of Wally and the history of the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival and needed more personal information.
I had known Wally since back in 1965 when I started a newspaper called The Sycamore Sun and he was president of the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce. Wally offered to write an open welcome letter which I published on the front page of our first issue. I left for California soon after that, returning four years later to be editor of the Daily Chronicle, during which time we got reacquainted. Then I left again and did not come back until 2006. Wally had moved by then, but always returned for the Pumpkin Festival. We met up again, and I taped his oral history.
There were two anecdotes he told about himself I never forgot.
First, he got a job at Jimmie’s Tea Room on the Northern Illinois University campus in the early 1940s, when he was 15. Although he was going to DeKalb High School full-time, he managed to put in 40 or more hours a week at the student hangout. He said there were few male students on campus during the war years, but about 600 coeds, many of whom came to Jimmie’s. They did not know how young he was and invited him to dances, which he gladly accepted.
The second was about the day he kissed more than 280 young women. He was in his Navy blues and happened to be in New York City the day Japan surrendered. He and a buddy went to Times Square where pandemonium reigned. Young women wanted to thank servicemen with a kiss, and Wally made himself available. He said he stopped counting at 280 but never got the phone number of even one of those young ladies.
Wally was an avid bike enthusiast. He estimated he rode more than 100,000 miles all over North America, plus 15 biking trips in Europe. He also owned Wally’s Cyclery (now North Central Cyclery) in DeKalb at one time. For many years after he founded the festival in 1962, he rode a high-wheeler (also called a penny farthing bicycle) in the parade, which he later donated to the Joiner History Room.
I called his widow, Jan Thurow, this week. She lives in a retirement center near her daughter, Sandra, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Jan is 91, but still wishes she could come back for the festival. Her last trip here was in 2015, she recalled.
It will never be the same festival without Wally in his top hat and colorful outfit greeting children and adults alike on the courthouse lawn each year. But his memory will live on when people visit the statue of him and his bike on Somonauk Street.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. His past columns can be found on his website www.dekalbcountylife.com.