The Lowell Folk Festival (a chapter excerpt)

With the Lowell Folk Festival coming this weekend, here is some background on the event. As some of our readers are aware, for the past two years I’ve been writing a book about the origin and impact of Lowell National Historical Park. What follows is an excerpt from a chapter about the Festival. The book is titled “Mill Power: Reclaiming Lowell’s Place and Story.”—PM


from “Lowell Folk Festival”

Pauline Golec received a Lifetime Volunteer Award from Lowell National Historical Park in 2010. With a chuckle, Golec explained, “When I was told about it, I wondered if someone knew something about my future that I didn’t know—did it mean that my life of volunteering would soon be over or that I had to volunteer forever? Oh, well.” She was recognized not only for her work as a museum teacher at the Tsongas Industrial History Center, but also for service as “Ethnic Chair” of the Lowell Festival Foundation. As Ethnic Chair she coordinates the small army of community volunteers who staff the food booths.

Pauline Golec

Golec has been part of festival activities since the first Regatta Festival in May 1974. Asked what got her to the proverbial volunteer table, she answered: “Ethnic pride, and I had friends who were involved, plus I love this city—and I’m a teacher.” For most of that time she held a dual role as co-chair of the Lowell Polish Cultural Committee. She remembers walking Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis around the Polish Festival one year in the mid-1980s. Golec also chairs the Festival Foundation Scholarship Committee, which makes awards to deserving high school seniors or college students. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Lowell Folk Festival, scholarships were presented to three young people who themselves have volunteered at the Polish, Filipino, and Burmese food booths.

Janet Leggat’s involvement with the Regatta Festival Committee and later the Lowell Festival Foundation dates from 1988. She has been a volunteer, a part-time manager, a full-time executive director, and is now a member of the board of directors. Her sister, the late Susan Leggat, was involved in Regatta activities from the start, eventually joining the National Park staff as an administrative assistant and then events specialist. A Lowell person through-and-through, Susan did leave town in the early 1980s, joining former Lowell Park Superintendent Lew Albert at Cuyahoga National Recreation Area in Ohio. She was back in Lowell a year later.

     “Susan and Joe Wilson had such a clear idea of what the Folk Festival should be,” said Janet Leggat. “Lowell is the most successful spin-off of the National Folk Festival. Some things like the logistics are better handled by the local partners, but the National Council for the Traditional Arts is highly knowledgeable about the talent—they ensure the integrity of the artists. The local ethnic food component, organized for years by Pauline Golec, has given the Lowell festival a distinctive character. A lot of people look forward to eating on that weekend.”

Susan’s friend Marie Sweeney remembered Sue’s “happy warrior” qualities:

    ” The pride she took in her job and in the many organizations she joined and supported was classic. Who could say ‘No’ to her when she asked for help or to buy a ticket or asked you to join a board or committee or to be a Folk Festival volunteer? It wasn’t for her, but for her cause, she’d say. But we did it for her, too. She was a pioneer and a role model for all of us, but especially for young women . . . . She had a strong will to do what was right—and to do it in the right way. She had a touch of kindness about her even when she had to say, ‘Not appropriate for this festival’ or ‘No, they can’t sell t-shirts’ . . . She helped make Lowell not just a place, but a ‘community’ of people working together for the good of all.”

Peter Aucella, assistant superintendent of the park, called Susan “the conscience of the Festival,” saying, “She made sure it retained its integrity and didn’t become a circus. You couldn’t believe the cockamamie ideas she had to listen to. It is what it is because of her.”

The legendary Joe Wilson of the National Council for the Traditional Arts was essential to the founding of the Lowell Folk Festival.  Speaking to local documentary-video producers Ruth Page and Scott Glidden, Wilson had this to say about culture and the preservation of traditional arts in America:

     “It’s possible to think of the structure of culture in the United States today as an ice cream sandwich. Up at the top you have received culture that is transmitted through conservatories and great institutions. You have ballet here and symphony music and all the great works of the Western World. There was a time, a few centuries ago, when you only had this level of culture, elite culture, and all the rest of culture was folk culture, the thing that working folks did for their own enjoyment, the thing that they played for themselves and handed down through their families and communities. But a century or so ago, we started manufacturing culture. We started making records and books and other things that were sold en masse, and so we have popular culture now or mass culture, the middle part of our ice cream sandwich.

“Folk culture is made by institutions, too, but small institutions. The family is the main institution of folk culture, and it’s not created to make money. Sometimes people become professionals who do these things, but they do these things because they’re good, and because they’re beautiful, and because they should be passed on.”


—Paul Marion (c) 2013, Lowell National Historical Park

4 Responses to The Lowell Folk Festival (a chapter excerpt)

  1. Linda Copp says:

    Pauline Golec has spent her life making a difference. Her legacy cannot be denied. Her commitment to Lowell is both inspiring and challenging because it challenges us to step up and do likewise. Though it would be difficult for anyone to reach her level of involvement and success, it is worthwhile to make an effort, our community needs us and it is of us. Pauline Golec not only showed up for things, she showed up with a vision and more importantly, with a plan and the energy and fortitude to see it happen. Words are important but they are empty vessels if we do not move beyond them to action. Pauline Golec knew this, she was not just a talker or a visionary, she was a do’er, an activist, an architect and finally, a willing and able participant. ‘Ethnic Chair’ is a title well deserved and well suited to the constancy and care of a woman totally committed to the idea that ethnicity was beautiful and vital and needed to be seen, celebrated and shared. The Lowell Folk Festival is the realization of that dream. It has been of great consequence to the city. I believe it will continue to be so and to represent the diversity of not only our city but the many cities world wide. As we reach out in this great democracy to understand each other and to work together for the salvation of our planet and the betterment of our lives, it is wise to remember these words from another gracious lady and leader in this city, Marie Sweeny. She said it best, when she said this about Pauline. “She had a strong will to do what was right—and to do it in the right way. She helped make Lowell not just a place, but a ‘community’ of people working together for the good of all.” We too, like Pauline must have a strong will to do the right thing . Pauline Golec not only wanted to do the right thing, she did it by putting every ounce of energy into making certain it was done to the best of everyone’s ability. The Folk Festival is a testament to this belief. So, many people working together with one ideal in mind to celebrate the customs and the diversity of ‘all the folks’ world wide, while appreciating that ‘all the folks’ share one humanity. Thank you one and all for creating something so fun and so very worthwhile.

  2. Marie says:

    Paul – Thanks for the timely posting of this book excerpt. Susan and Pauline are women I knew and know very well. Pauline – who is still with us – is the role model we look to for community caring, community action, leadership and how to sensitively preserve and promote culture and heritage. She’s is in her essence a teacher… for me that says it all. She like the Goodwins and others is a community treasure. Long may she show us the way!

  3. Michael Leary says:

    Thanks for these great stories about such wonderful people who did so much selfless community work for Lowell over the decades. It is fascinating to learn that the Merrimack Festival Regatta dates back to 1974.

    I’m presently researching and writing a book which examines the histories (since the 1970s) of the urban regeneration of Castlefield (Manchester, England), Downtown Lowell and Gastown, Vancouver The Merrimack Regatta is something else which Lowell has in common with Castlefield. In the 19th century the Manchester and Salford Regatta took place on the River Irwell at Castlefield. It rivalled the more famous Henley Regatta and attracted crowds of 50,000.