The reluctant heroine of Peanut Fest

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 4, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

It’s been said that a messy desk is a mark of genius at work, and if that’s true then Linda Stevens is an Einstein. Stevens’ desk is buried in a mountain of paperwork, but she handles that desk and stacks of papers like a &uot;top gun&uot; handles a fighter jet.

Sitting down to interview Stevens for a15-minute interview takes two hours. Between numerous phone calls and Peanut Fest volunteers coming into the office to ask questions, it’s like trying to work in an overpopulated beehive without the stingers.

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Stevens denies it, but she is the guiding hand behind Suffolk Festivals Inc., the producer of Peanut Fest. Suffolk Festivals is a nonprofit organization with hundreds of dedicated volunteers who are determined to promote Suffolk’s Peanut Fest as the place to be for family entertainment.

Even though she is the executive director, Stevens is the first to point to the executive committee and the board of directors as the power behind the success of the fest.

Still, Stevens is often referred to as &uot;the mother of Peanut Fest&uot; by the almost 300 volunteers who dedicate their time and talents to producing the fantastic festival. She gets that designation because of the manner in which she runs the festival offices.

Problems crop up every few minutes as they naturally would with a production the size of a huge carnival. While others are racing around trying to get things organized, Stevens sits at the helm, speaking quietly into the phone while doodling on any available scrap of paper. Within a couple of minutes, she’s got the problem all ironed out and everyone is satisfied. She even manages to provoke a laugh from almost anyone within earshot as well as the person on the phone.

Stevens appears calm, cool and collected, and the only hint that she’s working hard is the gum she chews like some people smoke cigarettes. She’s a lady about it, though, neatly tucking it away when she has to take a call or speak with someone come to see her.

Sitting in the back of a mobile home turned into an office, Stevens shuns the limelight preferring instead to let her volunteers take the credit they so deserve.

&uot;Right after this Peanut Fest ends, we begin with a critique on the event and how we could improve it,&uot; said Stevens. &uot;Each year, when the event opens and all the work is done… you hope you did it right, but it’s such a relief to see it all lit up on opening night. You know that the reason all the volunteers have done all this is so people can come from across Hampton Roads and New York, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and across Virginia… they all come to see the results of all this work.&uot;

She added that when she first began, she hardly knew anyone because she’d lived in Chesapeake. She also learned a lot including &uot;tents can walk.&uot;

&uot;I looked up one day and the tent was walking down the midway as some of the Jaycee volunteers had to move it,&uot; said Stevens. &uot;Everyone was just rolling because it looked so funny. But, that’s they way it is… it’s a lot of hard work and long hours but you love it.&uot;

Angie Twiford, the parade organizer this year, works part-time for the fest. She begins in earnest in September and works through the festival week. This year, in particular, she will make sure the parade participants are all lined up in the correct order.

&uot;I’ve been working with Peanut Fest since 1991 and been with Linda in the office for three years now,&uot; said Twiford. &uot;It’s just fun to be here… to see people you’ve grown up with and we all have a good time and we really enjoy working here.&uot;

Lisa Key basically does what everybody else does; jump in to do whatever needs doing. It’s that kind of organization. One in which everyone helps everyone else.

&uot;We work on it all year, and then it gets crazy in September,&uot; said Key. &uot;You may have a particular thing planned but you may not get to it until late that evening. That’s just the way it is around here. The phones are ringing… you just do what needs to be done.&uot;

Billy Wyatt, president this year of the Peanut Fest, is also a past chairman. In fact, he’s served as a volunteer since the production began 26-years ago. He said he continues to work with the fest because the volunteers are all like extended family.

&uot;Seeing the people enjoy the festival makes it all worth while,&uot; said Wyatt. &uot;We have a great staff here in the office and they all do a terrific job, going above and beyond what’s expected to put the show on. Dominion Power, for instance, couldn’t help us with the parade this year because of the hurricane, so our volunteers jumped in to help.&uot;

Wyatt added that Stevens and her staff are invaluable as are all the volunteers who work throughout the year to bring Peanut Fest to the people. He noted that no matter what problem comes to them, they all offer a smile.

&uot;They are all like family and they work together so well,&uot; said Wyatt. &uot;People like Tiny Andrews, a past chairman who was out parking cars for the festival last year. They all love Peanut Fest so much they will handle any chore just to be a part of the fest.&uot;

Stevens also knows that she has a dedicated team of volunteers who stand beside her in producing a great festival each year for the past 26 years.

&uot;We’ve had guys out there on their knees pumping water to clear the grounds for the festival,&uot; said Stevens. &uot;They do it without pay or recognition… but they give their heart and soul to it. We have 15 volunteers who give up a week of vacation to dedicate their time to the festival. We all love watching the faces of the people visiting the fest as they go from food vendors, to rides, to games, to shows, to watch the entertainment… it’s just great, and we hope that everyone has a wonderful time this year.&uot;

Name? Linda Stevens

Age? I don’t have to admit to that do I?

Hometown? Chesapeake, but I was raised in Norfolk.

Education? I’m a graduate of Norview High School and the School of Hard Knocks. I learned about this job by working next to the former Executive Director Patsy Privot.

Career? Executive Director of Suffolk Festivals Inc.

Volunteer activities? When my daughter Ashleigh was little, I was involved in all her activities, but since I got involved with Peanut Fest I don’t have time to volunteer. I am a member of the board of the Virginia Festival and Events Association.

Favorite thing about Suffolk? The people and the closeness they have with each other

Why did you choose your career? I fell into it accidentally in 1989, when I came to help Patsy Privot the former director of the festival. I’ve stayed because I love the people, the sponsors who are so wonderful, the board is so supportive, the volunteers and the office staff, the executive committee is phenomenal, those past and the new ones… this festival just breeds great hard-working people. It would just blow your mind to spend just two months out here.&uot;

Favorite thing about your job? The fun and exhilaration I feel when I see the peoples’ faces when they visit Peanut Fest.

Least favorite thing about your job? Not being able to make every person happy.

What accomplishments are you most proud of? Seeing the Peanut Fest be successful.

Who or what motivates and inspires you? The people…the volunteers who give so many hours to build this festival.

Favorite way to spend your free time? Every Friday night, my husband and I take out boat out and just enjoy being together.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with others? When it’s no longer fun, it’s time to step aside, no matter what it is that you’re doing in life.

What ingredients are in the recipe for a good life? Be as true to yourself as you are to others.

We all have 15 minutes of fame. How would you spend your time in the spotlight? I do not enjoy being in the spotlight. I don’t like it nor do I seek it. I like being behind the person who deserves the spotlight. I like being in my office… just doing my job. The others, the volunteers, deserve all the spotlight.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I wish I didn’t wear my heart on my sleeve and that I didn’t speak quite as impulsively.