If the ghost of poet James Whitcomb Riley (1853-1916) visited Freedom Plaza on Oct. 31, it must have been terribly confused, maybe even amused, by the objects called “pumpkins” on display in the atrium.
The pumpkins referred to in his bucolic poem beginning, “When the frost is on the punkin,” were mundane orange vegetables used to make pies. A layer of frost would have been their only adornment, with a few simple holes and slashes turning them into jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween.
The Freedom Plaza pumpkins came in a variety of painted colors with their holes and slashes anything but simple. They bore little resemblance to the grinning jack-o-lanterns Riley would have known.
These Freedom Plaza pumpkins were entrees in the annual Halloween contest, where the various departments compete against each other by creating unusual Halloween displays. Imaginations are stretched to the limit as teams vie for the coveted title of Best Pumpkin.
Riley’s ghostly imagination may have been stretched, as well, at seeing pumpkins decorated as frogs, baseball implements and a masked madam.
The voting method used to determine Best Pumpkin involves voters dropping dollars into containers marked with each department’s name, i.e. administration, maintenance, dining services, etc. The money is eventually counted to determine the winner, and then donated to the Alzheimer’s Foundation. Riley’s ghost may have recognized the word “Alzheimer” for that form of dementia was diagnosed as early as 1906 by German neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer and called after him.
To collect as much money as possible for the Alzheimer’s cause, voting is extended into the afternoon and the second Freedom Plaza Halloween event of the day, a costume party. The pumpkins are transported up to the auditorium to decorate the stage, with their vote-gathering containers beside them. The winner is announced at the end of the party.
If James Whitcomb Riley’s ghost did, indeed, wander the halls of Freedom Plaza on Halloween, we trust it enjoyed the adventure and will return next year when, once again, more than just the frost will be on our “punkins.”
Peggy Burgess is Resident Programs Assistant at Freedom Plaza and columnist for The Sun.