Local retiree Wally Jaquet has been lighting up the East Peoria Festival of Lights for nearly three decades.
Wally Jaquet dusts off a model car, a 1934 Duesenberg, and brings it to the table. “This is how I get most of my ideas,” he says.
If we were anywhere else, I might expect him to launch into a story about how he put the small model together. But the bright yellow lights that flicker beside us, illuminating a giant rubber duck, signal something else. Jaquet gives an approving nod to the technician testing the bulbs and surveys the workshop, staring for a moment at the space shuttle next in line for repair. He doesn’t spend a lot of time tinkering with model cars and trains. At least, not exactly.
We’re sitting in the East Peoria Festival Building, and parked somewhere around the corner is a 31-foot version of Jaquet’s tiny Duesenberg model, fashioned out of welded bars and 13,000 LEDs. The lights give the illusion of a solid, sleek surface and hide the real “classic” car inside—a junked vehicle donated to the city for use in its Parade of Lights, which kicks off the full Festival of Lights each year.
“I’ve seen cars come in here that have 125,000-plus miles on them,” says Jaquet. “And then we drive them in the parade for 20 or more years still.”
Maintaining these vehicles, which anchor and set into motion the larger-than-life sculptures, is no easy task. The only thing more difficult, Jaquet jokes, is finding people to drive them. Many of the cars have manual transmissions, and he says it’s nearly impossible to find anyone under 40 who knows how to shift gears.
While he no longer drives the floats himself, the 88-year-old Jaquet has logged plenty of hours behind the wheel on the parade route down East Washington Street. More impressive is the fact that, since the festival began 27 years ago, his creative mind and hands have taken part in designing, welding and wiring every one of its 30-some floats and exhibits. Well, almost every one. Jaquet is sure to credit Illinois Central College for the Batmobile. “That wasn’t me,” he admits.
He also makes it a point to recognize the hundreds of volunteers who assist with everything from replacing individual lights to servicing and sometimes rebuilding the float vehicles. He credits the City of East Peoria, too. They install FOLEPI’s Winter Wonderland, a two-mile drive-through “electric park” that features the parade floats and other stationary exhibits throughout the season.
A Caterpillar retiree, Jaquet spends three days a week volunteering at the Festival Building to gear up for the annual event, which kicks off with the parade on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. “We pretty much start preparing in January and work year-round. I’m not sure how I had time for a job before,” he laughs.
When asked how the skills he learned at Caterpillar might have prepared him for the Festival’s design challenges, Jaquet smiles and recalls a time when he and two engineers were called on to build a 2400-horsepower diesel engine during a strike in the early ‘80s. The project was a departure for Jaquet, a dynamometer operator typically responsible for testing engines, and a feat he describes with almost as much pride as the time he crafted a life-sized Clydesdale horse out of bars and lights.
“Now that was an undertaking! It took me six weeks to make the first one, and then we used it as a pattern so that a few other guys could build the rest of the seven horses, which are nearly identical.” At 70 feet long and comprised of over 90,000 individual lights, the life-sized replica of the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales pulling a carriage is one of the event’s most popular attractions.
Jaquet walks me through the Festival Building, pointing out other showstoppers, including Star Trek’s USS Enterprise; a blue whale that spurts water from its mouth, and a famous Disney robot named “Wall-E.” Jaquet seems especially partial to this cast member, who shares his namesake.
An Uphill Battle
While not all of the exhibits in FOLEPI’s Winter Wonderland double as floats in the parade, they all have to make the hike uphill to Veteran’s Park on Springfield Road at Par 3 Lane. The steep slope presents even more challenges when the winter weather sets in, and many of the exhibits end up being towed to the top. Semi trailers filled with supplies and smaller items often follow.
Fittingly, one of the newer floats planned for this year is a depiction of the Grinch—a character whose trek to the peak of Whoville should make him appear right at home on the incline to the park.
Jaquet describes the whole effort as a learning process, from the logistics of pulling off the event and trying to recruit new volunteers to the small design details. “We’re limited to what we can do in lights. For instance, we try to stay away from anything with a human face because it’s difficult to make sense of it. The only reason we can pull off Santa Claus is because, well, he’s mostly beard.”
Jaquet puts the Duesenberg back on his work shelf and brings over a model biplane. He nods to the other room, where I imagine a display in its likeness makes the Festival Building feel like an aircraft hangar.
“I used to look at toy ads for inspiration,” he says, “but nowadays, I’m not finding them very helpful. You know, an iPad would make a pretty boring exhibit.”
In 1984, Jaquet suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery. Shortly thereafter, he figured it was a good time to retire and take it easy. But sitting around the house didn’t suit him very well. He began to volunteer, building a Nativity structure, as well as his first float in the East Peoria hometown parade—a wooden horse and sleigh.
With energy and ingenuity, the East Peoria Parade of Lights and Festival of Lights continue to evolve, and 27 years later, Jaquet is still involved in making them shine for families throughout the holidays.
Dick Kuntz, a volunteer who Jaquet calls his friend and a “retired telephone man,” sits nearby repairing a widget for one of the floats.
“Wally won’t tell you about all the other things he does, but he’s really a jack of all trades around here. He fixes lawnmowers for the city and helps with EastLight Theatre. He’ll work on just about anything. You know, he’s got it in the head and the hands,” says Kuntz, who has been a festival volunteer himself for 18 years.
I ask Jaquet if there are any exhibit ideas he hasn’t tried yet. “Well, an inchworm would be neat.” He smiles, and for a moment, I’m not sure if he’s calling my bluff, or if he’s really thinking about downsizing his efforts in some way.
“You know, a huge inchworm with different colors that moves in and out,” he adds. “I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.” a&s