File photo

Torchlight parade runs in the family

Updated: June 28, 2017 - 10:59 am

One Twin Cities family is at the heart of the Aquatennial tradition

For Ruthann White, the CenterPoint Energy Torchlight Parade is a family affair.

The Eagan resident began volunteering at the Aquatennial flagship event with her family back in the mid 1990s. Now, about 20 years later, the White family leads much of the downtown Minneapolis tradition each summer.

Ruthann and her husband Tim are co-chairs on the committee that organizes the festival, a position they’ve worked up to since handing out water with the kids. Their four grown children also have leadership roles: Margaret Ross works with first aid, Scott White gets the bands lined up, Robyn Gaylord is the secretary who handles the paperwork and Andrew White helps with logistics. Even Ruhann’s son-in-law helps hand out water.

“The joke is, if you’re going to join the family you have to do this in the summer,” she said.

Before they started volunteering together, Ruhann and Tim attended the parade as kids regularly, whether it was because Ruhann’s dad’s employer had a float or they wanted to sit and watch with friends. The Aquatennial celebration was something inexpensive for Ruhann’s family, who were prone to staycations, to do during the summer.

“It doesn’t cost to come downtown, except for parking,” she said.

Now as adults, the event — the largest nighttime parade in the state — is a year-round hobby that is coordinated at their dinner table.

Over the years, the parade has had minor changes. The loss of retailers downtown has led to fewer in the parade, but in their place has come more ethnic and community groups. Large sponsors like Target and CenterPoint Energy, as well as high school bands from around the Twin Cities metro, continue to be common sights. Still, organizers are trying to draw in more local interest, White said.

“We’ve been working harder and harder to get Minneapolis units back in the parade,” she said.

In future iterations, White said she’d like to see a greater presence from downtown and other Minneapolis communities, such as the inclusion of a high school band made up of musicians from across the city’s schools.

Like the White family themselves, the parade continues to be a tradition for families who don’t necessarily live downtown, but come to enjoy it for a weekend. Experiencing the Torchlight can break the stereotypes people have of downtown Minneapolis, White said.

“They come downtown just like they used to come to the holiday display at Dayton’s. It gets to be a tradition,” she said. “They find out it’s not as scary downtown.”

For families, it’s an opportunity to introduce them to downtown Minneapolis, which many see as unwelcoming or even unsafe for people with young kids.

“I have friends who couldn’t believe we were bringing our kids downtown at such a young age,” she said. “It helps families. They see that there are things to do and there are fun activities.”

The White family is part of a core group of about 25 volunteers. Another three dozen or so volunteers come back every year to help out on the day of the parade. Some have been around longer than them, White said, and for good reason.

“It’s a fun atmosphere. You get to see the parade up close. You never have to worry about finding a seat,” she said. “Once you start volunteering and you enjoy it, you just keep coming back.”

As far as finding a spot goes, there’s a lot of open real estate along the parade’s route between the Basilica of St. Mary in Loring Park and Fifth Street near the Warehouse District. The parade is darker toward the downtown side, which is better for seeing the lights.

“There isn’t really a bad spot. You just have to find and claim your spot early,” White said.

The parade’s regulars claim their spot as early as Wednesday morning, putting out a blanket or folding chair on their favorite spots on Hennepin Avenue. It’s a tradition that is unique to the event, White said.

“’People are like really? They do that?’ They’re just amazed you can mark your spot and nobody cares,” she said.

This summer brings the 78th year of the evening parade, which takes place on Wednesday, July 19 at 8:30 p.m.