Lucy Fleming retires after 28 years with Fun Fest

J. H. Osborne • Jul 5, 2020 at 12:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Lucy Fleming has been director of Fun Fest for half its 40-year history. In fact, she planned to retire after the official 40th Fun Fest completed its run this year. Although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the official 40th Fun Fest, it didn’t postpone Fleming’s retirement. Her last day with the Kingsport Chamber was June 30.

Fleming’s retirement was marked by an informal get-together of friends and coworkers at Model City Tap House. They’d planned to celebrate outside, but as luck would have it, rain moved things indoors.

That same day, social media was abuzz with best wishes and goodbyes to Fleming.

Former Kingsport City Manager Jeff Fleming posted, “I’m really struggling with this retirement. ‘Fun Fest’ and ‘Lucy Fleming’ are synonymous. The fact that COVID took the event away this year, coupled with the knowledge that Lucy won’t be at the helm when it returns is a little hard for me to fathom. Best wishes and have fun! Lord knows you’ve worked to provide fun for the rest of us for years and years!” (Jeff pointed out mid-post, “No, we’re not married,” an apparent common point of confusion among some local residents over the years.)

Downtown Kingsport Association Director Robin Cleary posted, “Her wealth of knowledge in event planning, community involvement, community history and festival wrangling is unmatched.”

So, what did Fleming do on her first day of retirement? She started things off with a visit to the dentist. Then she dropped by the Times News for an interview about her retirement, Fun Fest memories, and future plans. Here are some highlights:

Q) Why did you retire?

A) “My husband has been retired for two years.I’d already planned to retire after this year’s event anyway. Retiring now gives everybody plenty of time to see what next year is going to look like ... who is going to do it, what it is going to include. We usually start planning in September. This gives more time for transition from me to someone else and for everyone involved to begin planning what the 40th Fun Fest will look like.”

Q) You were sort of cheated out of being in charge of the 40th Fun Fest, a big milestone. Aren’t you disappointed?

A) “Look at it differently. Next year will now be the 40th Fun Fest ... and I can just relax and enjoy it.” 

Q) Well, you’ve started your first day of retirement with a visit to the dentist and an interview with a reporter. What are your real plans for enjoying retirement?

A) “I don’t have any humongous plans. My father set a great example. ... He had so many hobbies by the time he retired, his job was just getting in the way. I’ve had a longtime interest in fiber arts (weaving, knitting, textile work) and I’ve been putting that off for years because I didn’t have the length of time to complete projects I’ve got in my mind. I’ve also, especially in the last couple of years, ‘missed’ summertime activities such as canning.”

Q) No travel plans?

A) “Not really. My husband has mentioned attempting to visit all of Tennessee’s state parks. But no definite plans.”

Q) How long were you involved in Fun Fest?

A) “I started as volunteer in 1992, working in the store. Eventually I managed the store. In 1996, I became assistant director of the festival. I became director in 2000.”

Q) Why’d you volunteer that first year?

A) “I moved here in 1980. I’d grown up in Knoxville, where I’d seen the effect the Dogwood Arts Festival had on the community there. When I first read about the first Fun Fest being organized, I thought, ‘Gee, I’d like to get involved in that someday.’ But we were actually out of town during the first several Fun Fests. And the first year we tried to attend a concert, it came a super storm that night. The main draw for us was usually the fireworks. In 1992, I had a friend who was running the Fun Fest store, and she asked me to just come give it a try. And I did.”

Q) How has Fun Fest changed over the 28 years you’ve been involved? Or even just in the 20 years since you became director?

A) “There are too many changes to list, really. I would say the event has evolved. My philosophy I’ve tried to follow is that we always had to retain familiar things, iconic events, as much as possible. Some of those run their course. But you try to keep the festival as a whole as familiar as possible ... and work with people each year to develop and introduce new events. Trends change. Events must change as well to reflect that. We’ve also gone through all the changes in technology that have transformed the way we and the public prepare for, produce, and participate. We’ve gone from paper tickets you had to purchase in person 30 days ahead of the event to online reservations and downloading your ticket to your phone to show at the gate.”

Q) You mentioned Fun Fest icons. Jeff Fleming posted on Facebook that you are synonymous with Fun Fest. That sounds like you yourself are a Fun Fest icon. What are some others?

A) “Our signature events, I would say, are the parade, the Crazy 8s, the concert series, the pet dog show, Taste, the hot-air balloon rally, and the fireworks finale. Several, if not all, have grown or evolved over the years.”

Q) What would you say was the biggest mistake or failure?

A) (Laughing) “Good event planners don’t let things fail. But it is largely an outdoor event. The most interesting challenge we have had was the year downtown and Fort Henry Drive flooded. It was the first time we had to cancel a night. Everything was under a foot of water and there were trash barrels floating in the streets. But the important thing to remember is that we had a lot of mud to deal with after that, but the event continued.”

Q) What advice would you offer whoever follows in your footsteps?

A) “First, it’s a matter of understanding you hold Fun Fest in trust for the community. It requires the ability to work with people who say, ‘I’ve got an idea ...’ and to remember Fun Fest aims to serve the broadest spectrum of community members as possible. It’s about small events all the way to giant events. It’s about the outdoors, but also having indoor opportunities in cool environments. It’s about bringing people together, with events that give them a chance to slow down and become reacquainted. It’s about inclusiveness.”

Q) What’s your favorite “swag” you’ve kept from Fun Fest?

A) (Fleming already at this point in the interview had pulled a well-worn “I survived Fun Fest” T-shirt from her bag and smoothed it on a conference room table to show it had, written in permanent marker, each year listed between 1992 and 2019. Fleming wore it to her retirement get-together last week). “I put a lot of it in the Fun Fest archives. We do have a coffee cup with Pat Benatar’s lipstick on it. And I have a bandanna from Willie Nelson. My daughter has a lapel pin one of the Pointer Sisters gave her.” 

Q) What will you miss the most?

A) “People. I’m going to miss a lot of people. Just being outside and seeing those people year after year ... and just picking up the conversation like a year hasn’t passed. I’ve watched children grow up. I’ve witnessed participants in athletic events come year after year and make progress and seen their smiles ... that make me smile. The joy and pleasure of this job for me was working with so many people who had passion for what they are doing. From company presidents to their line workers. That’s been the coolest thing.”

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