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Charly Haley, Published February 08 2013

Longtime Kiwanis volunteers devoted to annual pancake feed

FARGO – Pancakes hold a lot of memories for Rick Stern.

The 62-year-old has been a member of Fargo Kiwanis for 39 years and is a past president of the club, which today holds its 55th annual Pancake Karnival.

Stern is one of a handful of the 112 members of the Fargo Kiwanis Club who’ve volunteered at the event for decades.

His recollections of the massive pancake feed date back before he even became a Kiwanian. When Stern was 7 years old, his parents brought their family to the first ever Kiwanis pancake feed in 1958.

They never made it inside.

“It was at the foot of Broadway,” Stern said, at a grocery store now home to Bank of the West’s parking ramp. “That first crowd was so huge, and the lines were so long, and it was so cold outside … with five kids in the family, we couldn’t wait there.”

Stern’s dad took the family to a nearby restaurant for pancakes instead.

About 4,000 people were at the first pancake feed – a crowd that later expanded to be as much as four times as large. Forum archives show an actress named Edith Wilson attended the first feed dressed as maple syrup and pancake batter icon Aunt Jemima.

Also in attendance at the first flapjack feed was the now-83-year-old Jim Gompf. He wasn’t a Kiwanian at the time, but he said his family’s business, Gompf Displays, provided decorations for the event.

Stern grew up attending the pancake fundraiser every year with his family, and Gompf said he’s been involved one way or another since the first event.

“We always looked forward to it,” Stern said.

Gompf has volunteered for 47 consecutive Kiwanis pancake feeds, ever since joining the group. There are other longtime members of the service club, but many of them snowbird down south in the winter and aren’t mainstays behind the griddle. Stern said that’s part of the reason he and Gompf are among the two longest-serving regular volunteers for pancake day. The Pancake Karnival is always held the second Saturday of February.

A few years after the first pancake feed, the event was moved to the Fargo Civic Memorial Auditorium. One of Gompf’s memories from the early days at the Civic Center was when the members who worked making sausage in the basement brought a little vodka to slip into their orange juice.

“They weren’t supposed to drink at Kiwanis events,” Gompf joked.

While Gompf was starting out his pancake streak, Stern was in Kiwanis’ high school group, Key Club. He joined the Kiwanis Club after he got back from college and serving in the Air Guard, despite a family history of being in the Rotary Club.

Stern was 24 when a family friend and local businessman Bill Schlossman came into the Stern family’s still-running business, Straus Clothing.

“I know your family is all Rotarians, but they have the Rotary covered. Why don’t you come over to Kiwanis?” Stern recalled Schlossman saying.

That choice early in life has made for a friendly animosity between Stern and his Rotarian relatives.

“We’d just kid back and forth,” Stern said. He joked that he’s the only one good enough for Kiwanis. “We’ve had a lot of fun,” he said.

In his earlier days as a Kiwanian, Stern remembers promoting the event on a well-known WDAY-TV variety show, “Party Line,” hosted by Verna Newell from 1957 to 1979.

But one of Stern’s favorite memories of Pancake Day is still he 50th anniversary, when the Fargo Kiwanis Club briefly set the Guinness World Record for the number of pancakes served in 8 hours, besting the Lions Club from Lubbock, Texas, and satisfying what Stern said had been a Kiwanian dream for years.

“We’d been talking about it for years, the Guinness World Record,” Stern said. At the time, the record was held by a Lions Club in Lubbock, Texas.

“We made them mad, because they trounced us the next year,” Stern said.

Battling for the pancake record helped Fargo Kiwanis form a “good-natured rivalry” with the Lubbock Lions Club, Stern said. The Fargo Kiwanis received a $5,000 donation during the 2009 floods from Lubbock’s Lions Club breakfast to help in the recovery effort.

The 50th anniversary also landed on Valentine’s Day, so it was arranged for four couples to be married at the pancake breakfast, Stern said.

“I hate to take the credit for that, but it was my idea,” he said. He’d thought of it because he and his wife were engaged 15 years ago when the pancake feed and Valentine’s Day were on the same date.

“My wife keeps insisting that we were engaged on Valentine’s Day, but I say we were engaged on Pancake Day,” Stern joked.

The year after the record-setting event, the griddles were moved to the Fargodome. That’s when Kiwanis added Games Galore inflatable games to the event.

“We decided we’d move to the dome, but we had to make it big,” Stern said.

In his 39 years as a Kiwanis member, Stern has only missed one Pancake Day, because he was ill. He’s done every volunteer job at the event, but he usually ends up serving.

Gompf said he’s usually a pancake flipper.

“The tradition of Pancake Day is so deeply enrooted, if you ever mention pancakes around any Kiwanian, they’ll come to attention,” Gompf said.

Both the pancake veterans hoped everyone has fun and no one leaves hungry.

“It’s a fun, fun time,” Stern said. “It’s just such a great community event.”

If you go

What: Kiwanis Pancake Karnival

When: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today

Where: Fargodome, 1800 N. University Drive

Info: Admission is $8 for adults, free for children 2 and under. Proceeds go to local schools and nonprofits.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Charly Haley at (701) 235-7311

Fargo hotcakes in familiar company

The Fargo Kiwanis Pancake Karnival is famously featured in the book “1,000 Places to See in USA and Canada Before You Die.”

The pancake festival is listed among popular national attractions, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon, as well as other culinary explorations from around the country, including:

The book also suggests checking out other attractions in Fargo, such as the Plains Art Museum and the historic Fargo Theatre.

- Paul Flessland

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