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Frank Gray

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The North Webster Mermaid Festival features the Confederate flag on the cover of its program, which doesn’t sit well with everyone.

Sour note on Rebel flag at area fest

Back in the 1940s the little town of North Webster used to have a fishing festival.

It wasn’t too long, however, before the nature of the celebration changed. The annual bash was dubbed the Mermaid Festival, and for 68 years now the town has been having parades, and every year there’s a different theme.

In the past it’s been the Wild Wild West and Creatures of the Deep, and next year it will be Return to Camelot and then The ’70s on the event’s 70th anniversary.

This year, though, the Lions Club, which organizes it all, decided to focus on a riverboat called the Dixie that plies Lake Webster. The boat has been refurbished recently and the club thought it would be good to draw attention to the craft.

So this year’s theme was Land of Dixie. The program for the event features a man playing a trumpet, a large photo of the riverboat, and to call attention to the Southern theme a couple of Confederate flags were included under the words Land of Dixie.

And that hasn’t settled well with everybody.

A local attorney, Jay Rigdon, contacted officials with the Lions Club to let them know he found the use of that flag offensive.

“I was kind of concerned,” Rigdon said. “It was pretty offensive to us, our entire family. I was disappointed that they chose a symbol of racism and slavery and all that.”

Rigdon said the club could have used a lot of different symbols, such as a mint julep or a drawing of a Dixieland band.

Rigdon said he spoke to a member of the Lions Club about the issue. He said he was told that the club members talked about the issue and concluded they had only received one complaint, and that was from Rigdon, so they would go ahead and use the program.

Wayne Berry, the president of the club and the many who printed the programs, said there was no way they could reprint all the programs, which had already been distributed through businesses around the town. The club just doesn’t have the money.

“We have to have a theme that’s broad enough” for people who put floats in the parade to come up with various ideas, Berry said.

The flag design itself wasn’t meant to be racial or political, Berry said. “It’s just geographic,” with the flag representing the old South. “It’s a geographical thing, not political.”

Berry said that Rigdon told him he was going to talk to some of the sponsors of the festival, but he said the Lions Club has still received only one complaint.

There was certainly no intent to offend anyone, said Steve Ward, a club member.

“We’re a Lions Club. We support charities,” and give away $50,000 in scholarships during the festival, the money coming from the Shoop Foundation, created by a former bank owner in North Webster.

I’ve never been to the Mermaid Festival, which starts on Wednesday and runs through Saturday, and I’ll be busy cutting grass and cleaning and doing laundry this year as usual.

It seems like a well-intentioned event, though, and one hopes that this flap doesn’t end up tainting the whole thing.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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