Opinion: Fear of violence and viruses pushes a holiday ritual to the brink

·4 min read

Memorial Day weekend is here, but a longtime tradition is missing. That saddens me, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Orchard Lake St. Mary's Prep has decided to cancel this year’s Polish Country Fair, blaming security and safety concerns.

Billed as the nation's largest high school fair, the festival is the school's top fundraising event, and typically attracts more than 100,000 visitors. But this year's cancellation is the third in as many years. The pandemic forced the organizers to pull the plug in 2020 and 2021.

More: Orchard Lake police on Polish Country Fair cancellation: Don't blame us

More: St. Mary's Prep cancels Polish Country Fair after 'serious safety and security concerns'

Founded in 1885 to prepare Polish-American boys for the priesthood, St. Mary’s moved to its current location, originally the site of the Michigan Military Academy campus, in 1909.

I didn't attend St. Mary's Prep, but its campus became the locus of my childhood dreams when I began playing organized basketball there as an 8-year-old. The weeklong basketball camp I attended was nominally reserved for players who'd reach their 10th birthdays, but Coach Tim Domke, a friend of my dad’s, allowed me into the weeklong training session two years early.

For the next six summers, I looked forward to four days of nothing but basketball away from my parents. Two years after my debut camp, my younger brother turned 8 and began tagging along, exploiting from the same exception Coach Domke had made for me.

So going back to St. Mary's for the Polish Festival each year when I became an adult meant so much more than rides, cotton candy, and losing all of my money trying to win worthless stuffed bears for my wife and young children. I was a chance to revisit the Dombrowski dome, where I learned basketball, and peer into the dorms where we fell into bed exhausted each night after a day of drills and games.

Security concerns mount

St. Mary's cited the threat of violence as the primary reason for calling off this year's fair, citing the shooting at nearby Oxford High School and the copycat threats that followed.

“There have been a growing number of safety concerns at school events both on and off campus and within surrounding communities over the past 12 months,” school administrators wrote in a recent letter. “As a result, we consulted with local authorities at the Orchard Lake Police Department, who also expressed serious safety and security concerns with holding the fair this year.

And who could second-guess their caution in the wake of this week's massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, days after similar attacks in Buffalo and New York City?

In fairness, concerns about the annual fair at St. Mary's predated those tragedies. School administrators didn't mention that the fair had been marred by violence in the years before the pandemic, as fights among unruly teenagers from all over metro Detroit turned what had been a wholesome family event into an unpredictable adventure. I, too, had the experience of shepherding my wife and children away from such a brawl.

During the 2013 fair police charged a Detroit teenager with domestic terrorism after being alerted to social media posts in which the subject displayed a handgun, an assault rifle and several fully loaded high capacity magazines. With each passing year, it seemed, the police presence became more conspicuous.

End of a tradition?

Now I worry that I've already attended my last Polish Country Fair.

The pandemic changed us. It’s made us more leery of public events, more anxious about the dual threat of viral contagion and gun violence. Many of us simply don’t want to take chances with our lives.

But we are not meant to spend all our holiday weekends at home. We must find a way to find a balance between safety and family fun in order to preserve longtime staple events in metro Detroit.

We can't let violence win — not in cities like Detroit and Pontiac, and not at crowded festivals in suburbs like West Bloomfield Township. We can't allow our fear to lock us in our homes and our yards when the sun goes down.

Otherwise, we leave our children no choice but to return to the electronics they already crave. We'll have only ourselves to blame if we provide them no other refuge.

What families need are venues to create warm, lifelong memories. That’s what makes a Memorial Day weekend.

Darren A. Nichols is a contributing columnist at the Free Press. He can be reached at darren@dnick-media.com or his Twitter handle @dnick12.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Opinion: Pandemic, mayhem push Polish Country Fair to the brink