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Revamped Pumpkin Festival organizer: It’s about life lessons

October 26, 2017

KEENE, N.H. (AP) — Three years after the Keene Pumpkin Festival was shut down because of nearby violence, organizers say Sunday’s revamped event will feature far fewer jack-o’-lanterns, but many more “life lessons.”

Over its more than 20-year history, the downtown festival attracted huge crowds and several times even broke world records for the most lit jack-o’-lanterns in one place. But in 2014, a surge in attendance by out-of-town college students resulted in a melee at outdoor parties near Keene State College, about a mile from the festival. About 30 people were injured and more than 100 were arrested.

The festival returns this year in a scaled-back form focused on children. It will take place on Sunday, rather than Saturday, and also will start an hour later and end an hour and a half earlier than previous events.

There will be no vendors, and no outside jack-o’-lanterns are being accepted. Instead, only 5,000 pumpkins carved by local schoolchildren will be displayed, a fraction of the 30,581 that were lit in 2014.

Though the event will be about a tenth of the size of previous festivals, organizers say it symbolizes “about 100 life lessons” on second chances, healing and forgiveness.

“The message is almost bigger than the festival this year,” said Tim Zinn, a board member of Let It Shine, the nonprofit group organizing the festival. “We knew we had to approach the city with something that would allow us to get back on the same page.”

The college disciplined 170 of its students for participating in the violence, but officials say most of those involved came from other campuses around New England thanks to social media posts publicizing the festivities. This year, the college has again worked with Keene police, fire officials and event organizers, said Kelly Ricaurte, a spokeswoman for Keene State College.

Genevieve Joly, a freshman at the school who will be among dozens of student volunteers, said some of her friends were going home for the weekend to avoid being drawn into any problems. But she said she was reasonably confident things would remain calm.

“Campus safety seems very on top of it,” Joly said.

In an email Thursday, interim college President Melinda Treadwell reminded students to demonstrate “engaged citizenship” and that their choices will reflect on both them and the school.

“I appreciate that if you remain in Keene, you will have fun and celebrate Halloween and hopefully support the community’s efforts to return a family-centered Pumpkin Festival to Main Street,” she said. “I ask you please to be responsible and safe.”

The college also has implemented a policy it uses during final exams, prohibiting guests in residence halls during the weekend. Students could seek waivers for parents and other family members, however, a point that appeared lost on many who signed an online petition protesting the policy.

“No students in residential halls are allowed to see their Moms, Dads, friends, and anybody that may be a guest. Students need to see the people closest to them,” wrote the petition’s creator, student Alex Pappas. “Let’s show the administration that we, the students of Keene State College, are more than capable of having a safe weekend with the guest ban uplifted.”

Hannah Schmidt, a senior, said she agrees with both the guest policy and the scaled-back festival.

“It’s a tradition that Keene’s always had, so it’s good to bring it back, but I also know that Keene police and campus safety are really aware of what happened a few years ago and they’re very on it,” she said. “It makes perfect sense to me.”

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