When the 72nd annual Cherry Days Parade begins this Independence Day, Cherry Days 4-Ever committee member Ulli Lange will be pulling double duty.
Lange was selected at this year's parade grand marshal. He will ride in a wagon owned by Brett Barker and powered by a team Spotted Draft horses. They will be accompanied by Barker's dog and several children.
Cherry Days committee chair Bob Bushta said Lange was selected as grand marshal at one of the few committee meetings he missed, which happened to be the meeting to select the grand marshal. "It was unanimous," said Bushta.
Lange and his lovely bride, Inge, hail from Germany and immigrated to America in 1964. His career in coal mining led them to Paonia. He is also one of the volunteers that rescued Cherry Days six years ago and served five years as treasurer. The past six years he organized the parade.
Like this year's theme, "Grounded in our roots," Ulli and Inge are grounded in the Paonia community. "I'm not an old-timer, you know," said Lange, who first came to Paonia in 1982. "I consider this an honor, because Inge and I, we did a lot for the community."
Inge will not be by his side. She lost her life to cancer in May of 2017. He plans to wear his Prussian coal-mining uniform emblazoned with miner's pick and hammer that he wore early in his career as a coal miner. He wore it on their wedding day in 1961. Coal mining in Germany is a tradition that dates back some 500 years, he said. Each of the various regions has its own uniform worn for special occasions "like a tuxedo." And it still fits, he said proudly. "Good quality, too."
Lange said he doesn't want to drive home the fact that he's from Germany. Rather he wants to honor coal mining, coal miners, and his long connection to the profession. "Yes, I'm an American. I'm a citizen; I vote," he said. Paonia is made up of the old-timers and the newcomers, "And I'm a newcomer."
Ulli worked as a coal miner, coal mining engineer, managed coal mines, and at one point owned a mine. He wanted to go into farming after enjoying much of his youth at his grandfather's farm near Berlin. One summer during high school he needed money for a school trip and took a job at a local coal mine and went on to study mining engineering.
In 1964 Ulli and Inge immigrated with children Debbie, Lars and Jens to the United States and purchased a farm in Marianna, Penn. In 1983 he came to Paonia seeking land for German steel mills, and friend and Paonia resident Bob Johnson urged him to buy property here. They found a house and lot overlooking the valley and rented it out for 10 years. In 1992 they made Paonia their permanent home.
Inge was a long-time member of Friends of the Paonia Library. Ulli served on the board of Pitkin Mesa Water for several years and was president of the North Fork Pool, Parks & Recreation board the last five years. With Inge gone he's traveling more and didn't seek re-election this spring.
A life-long bicyclist, he still makes time to ride. He's also a member of the Rotary Club of the North Fork Valley. Since joining Rotary in 1991 he's belonged to clubs in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Somerset, Wash. He likes Rotary's humanitarian projects, but he also likes the social aspects. "When you come to town, as a newcomer it's a good tool for meeting people and making contacts with your community," he said.
He and Inge sponsored a high school student through Rotary's Youth Exchange program and never lost touch. Exchange programs are "a good concept that helps people understand better the different cultures of the world and understand how people think," he said.
The Langes also befriended Crawford resident and legendary rock musician, Joe Cocker, who died of cancer in 2014.
Cocker performed in Dresden in 1988 after Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Western musicians into West Germany. "It was a big thing," he said. Shortly before the Berlin Wall came down Cocker performed a concert in Dresden. An estimated 85,000-100,000 attended, and East Berliners listened from over the wall. "There were more on the East side listening than on the West," said Lange.
After the concert, the site was unofficially named "Cockerwiese" (Joe Cocker Meadow). When Cocker died, Lange was unable to convince the mayor of Dresden to make the name official, but he was granted permission to place a memorial plaque at the park. That happened on May 20, 2015, which is, coincidentally, Cocker's birthday.
Inge and Ulli were the only ones in their family to immigrate to America, and they maintained close ties to their homeland, where Inge was buried. Ulli recently traveled to Germany to place a memorial stone on her grave, where one day he will join her. She's in a family plot established by his grandfather when his first-born died in an accident at age 2. "It's a beautiful place," he said. In Germany, cemetery plots are leased, making them impermanent, but his family plot is a dedicated landmark as well as an active burial plot and can never be changed.
Lange said she will be with him in spirit when he rides in the parade. He praised the volunteers who keep Cherry Days going. In 2015 he and fellow Rotarian Jackie Parks revived the Cherry Days coal-shoveling contest, which for many years had been a part of Cherry Days. When the mines began closing, they lost their support and it was again canceled. This year, the event is back, and he couldn't be happier about it.