Pleasanton has its very own Uncle Sam in the person of Ward Belding, a 32-year member of our community who has participated for many years in the all-volunteer Fourth of July celebration at Lions' Wayside Park.
This year will mark the 11th anniversary of the home-grown, midday family picnic and concert in the park.
Belding will be easy to spot: he stands 6 feet 7 inches before he dons the stars-and-stripes top hat that adds another eight inches to his stature.
A vocalist who has performed in concerts since he was 10 years old, Belding will again lead the audience in the national anthem and other patriotic songs. (Don't worry: Lyrics are printed in the program.)
Called "Celebrating Freedom and its Evolution since the Revolution," the free event takes place from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the corner of Neal and First streets.
This is the only midday program in the popular Concerts in the Park series sponsored by the Pleasanton Downtown Association. As with the other concerts, fans start reserving their spots early in the day by placing blankets or lawn chairs at desired locations. By noon when the festivities begin, more than 600 are expected to fill the park.
Some come for the music, featuring Belding and the Pleasanton Community Concert Band, directed by Bob Williams. Others come for the tribute to the men and women in military service, past and present. Still others plan their day around the "Dog and a Drink for a Dollar," the bargain lunch sold by the local Lions Club. The Lions also distribute free hand-held American flags.
Part of the audience will be there specifically to applaud this year's recipients of the Ed Kinney Community Patriot Award. The combination of these attractions makes a good reason to stay in town for the holiday weekend.
This year's event sponsor will be Heritage Bank of Commerce on Main Street. Free soap bubbles will be distributed to children, and they also can line up for free patriotic face "tattoos." The music sponsor will be ACCUSPLIT, a Livermore-based pedometer and stopwatch company. Co-sponsoring the picnic with Lions Club will be Raley's supermarket.
Uncle Sam has been part of the Pleasanton celebration since it started, although the real icon dates back many years. The white-haired gentleman in tails and top hat has been part of American culture since at least 1817. Some say the nickname came from the "U.S." stamp on army provisions from Sam Wilson of Troy, N.Y., whom soldiers dubbed "Uncle Sam." The image most of us are familiar with was created by artist J.M. Flagg in 1916 for a magazine cover that later became an army recruiting poster, with a stern-faced Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer above the now-famous slogan, "Uncle Sam wants YOU!"
Ward Belding was a high school student in Pasadena when he was tapped to portray Uncle Sam for a church talent show. His mother, an accomplished seamstress, stitched up the costume that Belding still can wear half a century later. Only the top hat has been replaced.
In order to fit into the iconic costume, Belding has an exemplary regime for fitness, currently focusing on swimming and hiking.
"The main thing is to find something you enjoy and keep doing it," he advises.
Belding is participating in the "2009 Trails Challenge" that is co-sponsored by the East Bay Regional Park District and Kaiser Permanente health care. The concept, Belding explains, is to walk the equivalent of a marathon (26 miles) over the course of a year, including trails in at least five of the regional parks. Belding finds that an easy "challenge" to meet, particularly since last autumn when he and his brother hiked 175 miles through Spain in only three weeks.
Keeping in good shape physically is only one of the personal ideals that Belding lives up to. Another is being a good citizen of the world. After graduating from Pomona College ("The Oxford of the Orange Belt") and interning with the prestigious Coro Foundation, Belding volunteered for the Peace Corps, serving a two-year stint in Chile as an agrarian reformer.
"The Peace Corps was perhaps more meaningful for the volunteers than for those they worked with," Belding said. "That experience opened my eyes to a different culture and also to how the United States of America is perceived in other parts of the world."
Music is one of Belding's great passions. He began performing with the Boys' Choir of St. James Episcopal Church in Pasadena at age 10, then later with his college chorus and glee club. Since then, he has performed with the Oakland Symphony Chorus and Chamber Chorus, plus Encore of Lafayette. Currently he can be heard in Bay Area concerts with Soli Deo Gloria ("That means 'only to the glory of God,' and Bach signed all his works with that phrase," he translated.) Every other month, Belding meets with a group that performs Bach cantatas "just for fun."
Although there won't be any cantatas at the Pleasanton Fourth of July celebration today, there will be plenty of foot-stomping patriotic music to liven the holiday with the afternoon and evening still left for backyard barbecues on America's 213th Independence Day.
WHAT: Family picnic and patriotic concert
WHEN: Noon to 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: Lions Wayside Park, First and Neal streets, downtown Pleasanton
SPECIAL FEATURES: "A Dog & a Drink for a Dollar"--hot dog lunch sold by Pleasanton Lions; free hand-held American flags to the first 600 to arrive; free soap-bubbles and face "tattoos" for children; honoring military families; original poem by outgoing Poet Laureate; Pleasanton Community Concert Band and Uncle Sam.
HOW: Bring your own picnic blanket or lawn chair--some shade shelters provided. Audience encouraged to wear red, white, and blue.