The heart of the Apple Festival

Published 12:46 am Wednesday, January 19, 2011

For many who take part in putting together this year’s annual Four Flags Area Apple Festival, there will be a loss felt at its core.

That loss will come with the absence of Vivian Stilwell, who died Friday at Lakeland Medical Center in St. Joseph.

Stilwell was a fixture in the workings of the Apple Festival, both alongside her husband Dick and after he died in 2006.

During her involvement with the festival, Stilwell served as president of the board of directors and chaired multiple events, serving as treasurer. Friends say she was actively involved up until her death while also staying committed to operations of the business, run by her late husband, the Stilwell Co.

“She was a very calm and easygoing person, but very businesslike, ” said Lolli Estelle, who has worked on the Apple Festival for more than 30 years. “She was very matter-of-fact.”

Estelle said Stilwell watched over festival budgets and was not afraid to let anyone know if they were going over their allotted costs.

“You have to have people like that,” she said.

Executive board president for the festival, Craig Crocker, called her a “teacher.”

“She led by example,” Crocker said. “If you ever had a question, you could call her and she would always take time and talk to you and explain it to you.”

And she wasn’t afraid to set someone straight. Crocker said talking to family and friends earlier this week he remembered how getting a “scolding” from “Miss Vivian,” as she was called, would feel less like a sting and more like a lesson to be learned.

“When you left, even though you’d been scolded, you felt refreshed and you felt you’d learned something and advanced because of the knowledge that she told you,” Crocker said.

Stilwell wasn’t alone in her devoted affection to the festival. Her husband was a devoted volunteer as well.

He is remembered each year at the tent where volunteers give away apples to festival-goers. The tent is now known as the Stilwell giveaway tent.

Volunteers, Crocker said, “polish (the apples) all up because that’s what Dick did when he was alive. He would polish them all up and make them perfect because that’s how he liked things.

“Anything that we needed fabricated, the Stilwell family would take it in, fix it, paint it, bring it back, no matter what it was or how soon you needed it,” he said. “They always seemed to be there for us.”

Though nothing has yet been discussed, Crocker said he believed in some way the festival would find a way to honor Miss Vivian.

Even so, Estelle said it, Stilwell’s loss will be felt.

“I used to work in the kitchen and I would make sugar-free pies,” Estelle said. “And I would make sure that Vivian got some pie … You just did certain things for Miss Vivian.

“There’s going to be like, an open space,” she said, because Stilwell and her husband were always present.

A friend to many, Stilwell was a friend to Janet Pelkey for more than 40 years.

“She was a great person,” Pelkey said. “An amazing lady.”

Among her memories, Pelkey recalled being asked to help remodel Stilwell’s office at the Stilwell Co. and agreeing to lend a hand.

“The next thing I knew … I had a job,” she said.

In 1976 Pelkey and Stilwell worked together on the city’s bicentennial parade.

“The two of us, in two weeks, put on a pretty presentable parade,” Pelkey said.

The Stilwell Co. thrived, Pelkey said, in large part due to her friend.

“She was the mainstay of the business,” she said.

But first and foremost, it seems, Miss Vivian Stilwell was a dear friend to all who knew her.

“She’s going to be greatly missed by a lot of people,” Pelkey said.