From organizer to Grand Marshal

Roberta Friedlein, center, is congratulated by Mendota Area Chamber of Commerce Board President Abby Fancher, left, and Chamber President Kate Fox after being selected as grand marshal of the 2019 Sweet Corn Festival Parade. (Reporter photo by Jennifer Sommer)

R. Friedlein chosen as Grand Marshal of 2019 Sweet Corn Festival Parade

MENDOTA - The Mendota Area Chamber of Commerce has selected Roberta Friedlein to reign as 2019 Sweet Corn Festival Parade Grand Marshal. This is a fitting tribute to Friedlein, who retired from the Chamber office last fall after more than four decades helping to organize the Sweet Corn Festival Parade and the Crafters Market along with her many other day-to-day tasks at the Chamber.

The eldest of three children, Friedlein was born to Francis “Shorty” and Marie Pini. She grew up in Spring Valley, graduated from Hall High School and then attended IVCC, where she received her Associate’s degree in 1972. While at IVCC, she met many new friends and was introduced to Bruce Friedlein, who was from Mendota. Bruce went on to the University of Illinois, and Roberta continued her education at Illinois State University seeking a degree in secondary education, while majoring in mathematics with a minor in biological science. 

In 1974, while home on Christmas break, Roberta met with the superintendent of the Spring Valley Elementary Schools. She was offered a one-year substitute position teaching 6th and 7th grade math. This was very exciting news, as teaching jobs at the time were very rare. She went back to school after break and one of her professors was discussing the scarce job market for teachers. The professor asked for a show of hands of those who had teaching jobs and Roberta was the only one who raised her hand. A student sitting next to her was impressed and asked her, “Where at?”

That student was none other than ISU star basketball player, Doug Collins, who went on to play and coach in the NBA. “I told him not to worry, he would find a job too. We all know how that turned out!” Friedlein remarked.

Roberta and Bruce became engaged and enjoyed spending their time together going to concerts and U of I football games. They were married on June 27, 1975 and she officially became a “Mendotan.” As she continued to search for a permanent job, Robert Dempster, president of the National Bank of Mendota and also treasurer of the Mendota Chamber of Commerce, approached Bruce and asked if Roberta would be interested in working for the Chamber as an office secretary/bookkeeper.

Roberta accepted the job and began working on July 10, 1976. At the time, the Chamber office was open from 8 a.m. to noon and was located above First State Bank. This was the beginning of a 43-year career with the Mendota Chamber of Commerce. New on the job that first July, she was immediately immersed in preparation for the Sweet Corn Festival, which she had only attended one time. The Chamber board president at the time was Michael O’Connor, editor of The Mendota Reporter. Although the festival had a smaller footprint in those days, it still received a very large crowd of visitors.

In her 43 years with the Mendota Area Chamber of Commerce, Friedlein worked with nine directors, 44 Chamber presidents, and well over 100 board members, ambassadors, and V.I.P. members. “Above all, it was a pleasure to meet and serve so many Chamber member business owners,” she said. “There are so many wonderful people, representing retail, service and industry, many of whom have become my friends.”

As her duties increased at the Chamber, so did the duties in her personal life. Roberta and Bruce started their family and had two children, Matthew born in 1982 and Heather in 1989. In the fall of 2001, Bruce was diagnosed with cancer. Roberta was granted a leave of absence from the Chamber board so she could stay home and take care of him. On June 2, 2002, Bruce passed away and Roberta returned to work shortly after.

Friedlein always enjoyed helping people, both local and far away, who had questions about Mendota. Whether they wanted information about products produced here, were looking for a business or industry or had questions about the community, she was willing to help. “It gave me a good feeling when I could send a customer on their way.” 

Looking back, Friedlein recalled some particularly memorable experiences while helping with the Annual Sweet Corn Festival. The first happened after only a few weeks on the job when she lost the parade chairman and had to step in and organize the event. Then there was the year she got to work on a Friday and found out that the Queen candidates’ float used in the parade had been destroyed in a fire. Another time, she answered a phone call during the Festival and was told that the garbage cans on the midway were overflowing - and she was the only one in the office. “So, you put on some gloves, grab some garbage bags and go,” she said matter-of-factly. 

On the positive side, Friedlein enjoyed having the opportunity to interview and write the articles about the Sweet Corn Festival’s many parade grand marshals, calling it “truly an honor for me.” She also had a helping hand in creating the Festival’s Craft Show and seeing it become a success. The parade was another part of her role, which took many hours of effort, but the reward was being able to watch it all unfold on Sunday knowing the hard work and long hours paid off. Mostly, she enjoyed working alongside so many Chamber members and community volunteers to make the Sweet Corn Festival a success through the years.

As for the free sweet corn served at the Fest on Sunday, Friedlein did not mind standing in the block long line with everyone else to get a plate of piping-hot corn. She saw the line as a chance to meet some interesting people while waiting. During those brief visits, she had the opportunity to reminisce about “our little town” with people who had been coming to the festival for 20 years, as well as those who said their grandparents brought them when they were little. “Those conversations make the line seem short,” she said.

With the Sweet Corn Festival right around the corner, many people will be returning to Mendota again this year to enjoy time with family and to catch up with old friends. For Friedlein, like so many others, the festival has become a time of homecoming and community.

The Mendota Area Chamber of Commerce invites everyone to join Roberta Friedlein on Sunday, Aug. 11 as she is honored during the Sweet Corn Festival Grand Parade and is recognized for her dedication and service in helping to make the Festival grow and be successful over the past 43 years.

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