Continuing Tradition, Stevens Crew Lends Technical Expertise to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

11/21/2011

If you look closely underneath the towering shadows of Superman, Donald Duck, Curious George, SpongeBob and Shrek on Thursday, you just might be able to spot a group of dedicated Stevens volunteers, who will be battling the elements in the name of science as the rest of us chow down on turkey and stuffing.

For the 26th straight year, a team of 110 volunteers from Stevens is performing some of the most essential functions in the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: testing, preparing, inflating and piloting the gigantic helium balloons featuring well-known characters from pop culture – the calling cards of the annual extravaganza held each holiday season in New York City.

“It’s a huge honor for us,” said Linda Vollkommer, co-coordinator of the volunteers and head women’s fencing coach at Stevens. “We’re really lucky to be a part of it.”

“Thanksgiving is a true American holiday – it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” added Dr. Reiner Martini, associate professor of physics and a long-time parade volunteer. “Stevens is really fortunate to be part of it.”

The Stevens volunteer crew is well-equipped to handle the behind-the-scenes responsibilities for the success of one of America’s most beloved and widely-watched events. That’s not just because they’ve been at it for a quarter century. Each of the students, faculty, staff, alumni and parent participants retains unique technical knowledge necessary to engineer the complex balloons, courtesy of their study at one of the nation’s premier research and science schools.

“It’s great to be a part of ‘America’s Parade’ from a community involvement standpoint, but even better is that Stevens has a chance to show its technical colors,” said Dr. Ronald Besser, professor of chemical engineering.

In fact, Dr. Besser led four Stevens students in a senior design project to devise a method for recycling the helium that keeps the parade balloons afloat. Helium is a finite material, and a few years ago there was a global decline in the amount of the gas available, resulting in a rising prices. Working with The Linde Group, the world’s leading supplier of helium and the company that donates the gas for the Macy’s parade each year, Dr. Besser and the students created hardware that could draw out the helium from the balloons at the end of parade day, compress the gas, and load it into a gas delivery truck so it could be recycled and reused. Linde has since used both the process and hardware on some of the Macy’s balloons.

Stevens was originally invited to join the inflation crew in the 1980s because university members – with their scientific background – understood the substance of helium and the engineering at work behind the gigantic inflatables. At the time, Macy’s parade studio was located in Hoboken so the partnership was the perfect fit. In addition, the students’ youth made them physically fit and energetic enough to handle the manual labor involved in the job.

As it was then, volunteering for the parade today is quite a commitment. The Stevens team participates in numerous practice sessions throughout the year prior to spending the entire day and night before Thanksgiving working with the rest of the crew to assemble and inflate the balloons at the parade’s central preparation site – New York City’s Museum of Natural History. Then they actually spend the night in the museum before rising at 4 a.m. to finish the assembly.

Even the hard floors and early hour don’t deter many volunteers.

“Once people get involved, we really never lose them,” said Vollkommer, who personally has volunteered for the last 25 years. “They have too much fun and end up coming back year after year after year.”

That’s true of senior Kendra Appleheimer, who has volunteered at each of the last four parades.

“It’s really a blast,” she said. “Sure, it involves waking up extremely early on Thanksgiving Day, but all the hard work you put in makes you feel like you really earned your Thanksgiving dinner.”

Dr. Martini agrees.

“The people who take part are a special type of people. It is a day of really tough work, but everyone is smiling and happy,” he said.

The team’s effort comes to fruition on Thanksgiving Day when the balloons are paraded down the street in front of millions of spectators lining the streets in Midtown Manhattan and perched in front of television screens across America.

During the actual parade, the Stevens crew works as “pilots,” walking or driving vehicles in front of the balloon handlers and directing their movements and the movements of the balloons – i.e. adjusting the height at which the balloons are flown and maneuvering around barriers like trees, awnings or telephone poles.

Afterwards, Macy’s expresses its gratitude by making an annual donation to the Stevens Athletic Department. But the excitement of the day is enough thanks for most of the Stevens team.

“It’s so fulfilling to watch one of the biggest parades in the world with your friends and family and know you were a part of it; that you inflated or drove that balloon that is making so many people smile,” said Appleheimer.