For more than two decades, Rosalie Walls’ life has revolved around elections. And she’s never even held public office.
Walls is the president of the Sussex County Return Day Committee, and works tirelessly throughout the year to make sure Georgetown’s signature event goes off without a hitch.
From coordinating the traditional ox roast, to reaching out to candidates – both winners and losers – and finding them stylish rides for the parade, Walls has been an integral part in planning the Return Day celebration since 1972.
Earlier this year, she had a stent put in her chest and has been told by doctors to take it easy. Her version of taking it easy is leaving the Return Day offices at the Marvel Museum before 10 p.m. A few weeks ago, we sat down with Walls to discuss what goes into planning such a unique event – which this year celebrates its 200th anniversary.
Q What goes into planning for what is essentially one day every two years?
A I don’t really know where to start…We’re all volunteers and thankfully I have a lot of faithful volunteers. As president, I usually pick the honorary marshals – this year I picked the former governors who are still living but are no longer in office. Ahead of time, we have to schedule the reception for the candidates, which we do at [Delaware Technical & Community College].
Then as we get closer, we have to get a list from the Department of Elections and invite the candidates, and then we have to meet with the town and county officials to make sure we have everything ready for the day.
Q You give out a number of trophies. What are the awards for?
A We have the Mayor’s Award, so the mayor selects someone in the parade to get that trophy. And then we give out one for whoever best offers the best themed [float or carriage] in the parade, and then the Return Day Committee has it’s own award we give out. The parade has bands and floats and of course, the candidates who ride in [horse-drawn] carriages or in antique cars or convertibles. We try to put the [bigger] candidates in the carriages and the winner gets to ride facing forward and the loser has to ride facing backward.
Q What does it take in terms of volunteers and dollars to make Return Day a success?
A It usually takes around 100 volunteers to pull off. We have five officers and we have about 20 directors and then we name the county council and county administrator honorary directors.
Page 2 of 3 - It’s a county thing. It’s called Sussex County Return Day, so we have to depend on them a lot, along with the town, because there’s a lot of sacrifice they have to make. The council gives us some grant money and the town gives us workers and we don’t usually have to pay for the workers…I think last time the budget was around $80,000.
Q When does everything get started?
A It starts Wednesday, when they get the ox on the spit, and it’s usually about noon by the time they get that going. That roasts all night long and it’s usually done in time for when the parade is over and after the burying of the hatchet happens at The Circle.
Q So what time does everything get started on Thursday? When does everybody get into town?
A Some of the vendors get into town Monday night. And then we have a street dance, and we’ll have three bands performing Wednesday night; the first one starts at 5 p.m. That ends at 11 p.m. because we don’t want to keep the people staying at The Brick Hotel up all night. In the morning, there’s other entertainment. There are other bands and performances as people arrive, plus the vendors are there. The parade steps off at 1:30 p.m. Also, for the first time this year, on Wednesday night, we’re adding a horsehoe tournament and cornhole tournament and they’re going to start at 5 p.m. and that’s going to be in front of the Citizens Bank and The Brick Hotel. And there’s also going to be a cupcake contest.
Q What kind of crowd do you get in a good year, when the weather is nice?
A When the weather’s nice, we’ve had as high as 20,000 people. There’s about 5,000 people in the town. One year we had “Good Morning America” here and of course it rained…They wanted the fountain to be working and we had to fly in parts from California to get it working and they wanted all the flowers to be in bloom, in November, so I was out there watering them every night.
Q How did Return Day get its start in Georgetown?
A I guess when the county commissioners decided to move the county seat from Lewes to Georgetown. It looks like it could have gotten its start as early as 1791 [though official records have the first Return Day in 1812], but it was stopped for a 10 year period between 1942 and 1952 because of the war and the shortage of things, so that was five return days. But there were enough interested people that it was revived after the war, and so this we’re calling the 200th year.
Page 3 of 3 - Q What is it about Georgetown that’s made Return Day such an enduring event?
A I think it’s because none of the other towns have the big courthouse and The Circle and all of that makes it ideal. The Town Crier gets on the balcony of the courthouse and reads the returns. Of course, the former mayor, W. Layton Johnson, has been the Town Crier since 1990.
Q What’s a moment you’ll never forget from you’re time coordinating Return Day?
A I took over as president in 1990 and I was named president on Sept., 19, so you can see what a short period of time we had to get ready. Well the day before that year, they put the ox on the spit and it had been roasting and it was probably about 6 o’clock in the evening and we were in town hall…and they came rushing in and they said the ox stand was on fire. I kind of thought they were kidding, but when the second person came in…I got up and went to the door and they were right they were not kidding. There happened to be a forestry man in the area and he got there before the fire department to put out the fire…We made some calls and within two or three hours we had that ox taken down…and we had a new ox to roast. It was amazing they were able to do that. It’s not my fondest memory, but it’s certainly a lasting memory.