Community spark: CarmelFest grand marshals reflect on 30 years of service at event


Jeff and Shari Worrell are looking forward to experiencing the annual CarmelFest parade as grand marshals, in part so they can experience it side by side.

“Usually, we’re not together at the parade,” Shari said.

That’s because for the last three decades, the couple has typically been working as volunteers at the parade, and, for the last six years, Jeff – a member of the Carmel City Council — has been in it representing Carmel with other city council members.

This year, the Worrell’s will ride together in a classic car owned by businessman and developer Turner Woodard, as the CarmelFest parade committee unanimously selected the Carmel couple as grand marshals to honor them for their 30 years of service to event.

“When we heard it was Jeff and Shari’s 30th anniversary with CarmelFest, the parade committee unanimously voted to award the 2022 grand marshal honor to them,” said Bec Hunter, parade committee chairperson. “They have worked long hours and behind the scenes at CarmelFest every year. If we need help with anything, they are on it, and we have called upon them many times.”

Not only have the Worrells been instrumental in growing CarmelFest into one of the largest summer events in central Indiana, but they also kept it from disappearing only a few years after its launch.

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Amy and Brad Worrell at CarmelFest in the 1990s. They plan to return to the event this year with children of their own. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Worrell)

Continuing the tradition

Jeff grew up in Urbandale, Iowa, where his father helped organize a July Fourth parade each year as a member of the Lions Club. After moving to Carmel in 1989, fond memories of that event inspired him to get involved with the holiday parade in Carmel.

The Carmel Chamber of Commerce organized CarmelFest at the time, and as an entrepreneur and member of the chamber, Jeff was easily able to sign up as a volunteer for the first time in 1992.

“I had a great time because they gave me a walkie talkie and a golf cart, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” said Jeff, whose duties included collecting trash and hauling ice that year. “I thought that was the coolest thing.”

Around that time, the festival – like the city’s population – experienced rapid growth. Chamber leaders decided the event had become too large for them to manage, and they were prepared to let CarmelFest come to an end.

Jeff was among those who wanted to see it continue, so he spoke with then-Mayor Ted Johnson to see if the event could be saved. Johnson said if a citizen committee agreed to organize and manage the event, the city would provide assistance and allow it to be held at the gazebo near City Hall. Previously, the event had been held at the Carmel High School football stadium and in an empty field that later became the site of the Carmel Clay Public Library.

In 1994, Jeff became the first chairperson of the CarmelFest committee, a role he has held for six or seven events since then, he said. CarmelFest has continued to be centered around the gazebo, although its footprint has grown through the years.

Community spark 

Jeff has held various roles with CarmelFest through the years, but during most of his time as a volunteer he’s been involved with putting on the fireworks show.

In the early days, he was tasked with making sure a tarp covered shells waiting to be used during the fireworks show, pulling it back as a runner grabbed the ones up next to be shot into the sky.

“We would get rained on with embers,” Jeff said. “That’s why you had to cover everything, or it would all blow up.”

At more recent CarmelFests, Jeff has staked out a spot by the gazebo stage, walkie talkie in hand, so he could alert those setting off the fireworks when it was time to launch the first ones, ensuring they were in synch with patriotic music performed live by the Carmel Symphony Orhcestra.

He’s also been key in promoting and selling Spark Buttons, light-up pins that come with coupons from local merchants. He said selling the buttons is his favorite part of CarmelFest.

“It always leads to a conversation, and it has been a great connector to people who want to tell me something,” Jeff said. “I love it.”

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Shari and Jeff Worrell volunteer at a previous CarmelFest celebration. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Worrell)

Serving together 

Shari’s has also held a variety of roles as a CarmelFest volunteer through the years, although she prefers to remain behind the scenes. The Worrell’s two children, now adults, also spent many years serving at the event.

“It really taught them a lot about volunteerism, about being a part of the community you’re in,” Shari said.

But it wasn’t all work. The family developed fun traditions, as well, such as an ongoing plan to gather with neighbors to relax and listen to live music the afternoon of July 4, and Shari and her daughter being determined to order the festival’s last elephant ear.

“We’d get in the line, and if anybody got behind us, we’d make them go ahead of us, so we’d always get the last elephant ear at the festival,” said Shari, noting that the tradition ended when CarmelFest grew to have more than one elephant ear vendor.

This year, the Worrell’s two children will be back in town for the festival, and – for the first time – their granddaughter will be there, too. The family looks forward to experiencing one of their favorite traditions together again.

“I can’t imagine the Fourth of July without CarmelFest,” Shari said.

It’s not always easy

Helping to coordinate CarmelFest for 30 years has been a lot of fun for Jeff and Shari Worrell, but it’s also been challenging at times, too.

In 2003, Jeff received an unexpected call from the state of Indiana regarding the sale of Spark Buttons, which came with a number used for a weekly prize drawing.

“It was the excise police, who said, ‘Mr. Worrell, you’re running an illegal lottery, and we’re issuing you a cease and desist,’” Jeff said. “I was competing with the Indiana lottery.”

The buttons continued to be used to give away prizes for many subsequent years – but always with a license to do so.

Another challenge occurred in 2005, when — only weeks before the event — the man who supplied the fireworks died of a heart attack, which left Jeff frantically searching for a new vendor for the industry’s busiest night of the year.

“I had to scramble to find a new fireworks company,” Jeff said. “Who isn’t already booked on July 4?”

Just in time, Jeff connected with Melrose Pyrotechnics, a Kendallville-based company that has been supplying the CarmelFest fireworks ever since.