The founder of the Quad-City Arts Festival of Trees, who hasn’t visited the event for at least 15 years, is astonished at how spectacular the event has become.
Diane Sulg, of Charlotte, N.C., visited the Quad-Cities last week and spent some time at the festival, riding in the annual parade, attending a reception in her honor and talking with friends and longtime festival supporters and volunteers.
Sulg and her husband Madis have lived in North Carolina for a little more than 12 years.
Diane Sulg was just ending her term as president of the Junior League of the Quad-Cities when the idea of holding a Festival of Trees in downtown Davenport came to fruition.
“People didn’t know what it was,” she said. “I remember people asking me if we were going to plant trees in downtown Davenport.” She also remembers people saying, "It'll never last."
There were no riverboats, and no Mark of the Quad-Cities (now the i wireless Center), she said. “There really was nothing happening. This was the right time for this event in the Quad-Cities.”
At that time, she said, “There was a dearth of funding for the arts,” right after the agricultural economy collapsed.
She read in “Horizons” magazine about an Atlanta festival, and thought it would be a good idea for the Quad-Cities. Because she had been in Junior League, she knew how to organize an event. She called some of the Atlanta leaders about how the event was put together. “The one thing about volunteers is that they share like crazy,” she said. Additionally, she said, “I used every idea I ever had, like a celebrity lunch.”
This was before an organization called Quad-City Arts even existed. “It was just Visiting Artists,” she said. It was Sulg who combined the Visiting Artists program, the Quad-City Arts Council and the Festival of Trees fundraiser. She was the chairperson of the event for three years.
Sulg rode in a convertible Saturday morning in the Festival of Trees parade — “Now you know why I live in North Carolina,” she said.
She spent quite a bit of time at the festival itself over the weekend, and attended a reception at Quad-City Arts. “I saw tons of people I hadn’t seen in years,” she said, including many members of the steering committee from the event’s first year in 1986.
“I told the board we would raise $25,000 that first year,” she said.
A tragedy that first year made Davenport famous, she said. She well remembers that the 1986 Festival of Trees theme was “An Affair to Remember.” Actor Cary Grant was scheduled to appear in “A Conversation with Cary Grant,” a 90-minute program featuring clips from the actor's movies and a question-and-answer session at The Adler Theatre that night. But Grant became ill, and died at 11:22 p.m. after a massive stroke at the age of 82 in what then was St. Luke’s Hospital in Davenport.
The Quad-City Times headline was “A Legend Dies in Our Arms.”
After the first year, the festival continued to gather momentum. “Everybody along the way has brought something to the party,” she said. "It’s so huge. I don’t even know how they put it all together. To walk into the area where we held the festival … now it’s just the kids’ area!
“One of the things that is so true today is that this is something almost anyone can buy into — there’s so many ways you can buy into Festival.”
The Sulgs, accompanied by their grown daughters and their children, had a great trip, she said. “I miss the Quad-Cities. Everyone was so wonderful — they made this an incredible visit and I loved every minute of it!”
The Sulgs remain involved in the arts community, particularly fine American crafts and Southern folk art, on a regional and national level.