Leaders prepare for Niskayuna’s big party

Longtime organizers of Niska-Day ready to hang up their hats
Bill Leader, left, and his wife, Denise, hold a display case filled with Niska-Day pins.
Bill Leader, left, and his wife, Denise, hold a display case filled with Niska-Day pins.

Categories: News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

Denise and Bill Leader have always loved the hustle and bustle of Niska-Day.

“We’re all there with the single-minded focus, which is the love of the day and to present it to the community,” Denise Leader said of volunteers who plan and prepare Niskayuna’s biggest party of the year. “When you get up to the field, being up there when the tents go up, you still get the chills.

“Even after 38 years, you say ‘My God, it’s going to happen.'”

The tents will go up again this weekend: The 38th edition of Niska-Day will be held Saturday on the grounds of Craig Elementary School and the adjacent Zenner Road soccer complex. Events begin at 8 a.m. with a fun run at Van Antwerp Middle School; the day’s famous parade starts at 10 a.m.

While this year’s theme is “Hats Off to Nisky,” longtime fans of the show might also consider “Hats Off to the Leaders.” Denise and Bill, who have been the co-chairs for 23 or the past 25 Niska-Days, will hand off chair duties to Michael Corcoran next year.

Corcoran, 23, is serving as a co-chairman for this year’s party.

The Leaders, who live in the town’s Avon Crest neighborhood, have loved their Niska-Day years with a 30-person committee that annually pulls together all components for the event: food, entertainment and events, the parade among them.

“It is a community day,” said Bill, retired vice president of marketing for G.E. Energy Financial Services. “It is our special day to celebrate living, learning or working in Niskayuna.”

Niska-Day is a production of N-CAP, the all-volunteer, community coalition whose mission is to improve the quality of life for Niskayuna residents, with an emphasis on substance abuse prevention by youth.

In addition to the fun run and parade, other highlights of this weekend’s Niska-Day include:

* Parish of St. Kateri Tekakwitha church as grand marshal; face-painting; carnival rides; magician Merdwin the Mediocre.

* Caricatures by Phil Singer and Jenny; craft vendors; pony rides; music headliner TS Ensemble.

* Fireworks will close the show at 9:15 p.m.

Denise said Niska-Day’s origin includes touches of tragedy; four Niskayuna High School seniors had all committed suicide during the late 1970s.

Studies conducted by the Niskayuna Central School District found people did not have a sense of community beyond their own neighborhoods. There was nothing in the town to bring people together.

“N-CAP was formed as the organization to try to bring people together,” Denise said. “Niska-Day was formed as that outlet to bring people together in a festive manner … get out of your community and let’s get together in one spot.”

The first Niska-Day took place in 1982, with army tents and a chicken barbecue among the notable sights. Three large professionally-erected tents are now standard, and there are still plates of chicken – along with plates of pulled pork, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, hamburgers, quesadillas and other foods.

“Everything is free except the food and the rides,” Denise said.

Advice is free, too. The Leaders say Niska-Day, as one of the longest, continuously running community events in the Capital Region, has received calls from people who run similar events. Organizers of Glenville’s autumn Oktoberfest once called for tips.

“We spent time with them and shared our secrets,” Bill said. “We just did the same thing with the Verdoy Fire Company, which is having its 75th anniversary this year.”

Corcoran, who graduated from Niskayuna High School in 2013, has been on the Niska-Day committee for the past four years. He has been following the Leaders this year.

“I’m just following along their lead, just kind of working in their shadow, seeing how a lot of the difference processes work,” Corcoran said, adding he will be consulting the Leaders for the 2020 party.

“I’m sure I’ll have a ton of questions,” he said.

For this year’s Niska-Day, Corcoran is managing social media. Posts to Snapchat will be seen with Niska-Day filters. It will encourage more people to take photos and show they are at Niska-Day. “We want to encourage more people to take their own photos and showcase what they’re doing,” Corcoran said.

Contributions from large and small businesses provide the funding for Niska-Day.

“It’s a $35,000 venture to put it on,” Bill said. “The parade costs us about $8,000, we have to pay the people who want to play and march. We spend about $7,000 on tents, tables and chairs, we have insurance for the day, for entertainment we spend about $8,000.”

Residents also contribute.

“We used to have this one lady who lived on Balltown Road and every year N-CAP would receive a check for $10,” Denise said.

“She’d always write a little note with it,” Bill added. “This is all I can afford to give you.”

“Every year, her writing got worse and worse,” Denise continued. “And then the checks stopped coming and we said, ‘Oh, wow …'”

Rain can be a concern, but it’s a minor one.

“They come no matter what the weather is,” Denise said. “We had a year that was so wet, when it was at the high school, people came in their boots, they came with their slickers. We called it ‘Nisky-stock’ because it was so wet.”

Denise referenced Woodstock – the giant summer music festival of 1969 famous for too many people and too much rain.

Snow was a problem in 2002. Two inches of wet snow fell, power lines fell along the parade route and put excessive pressure on the tents. The day was cancelled.

Snow is out of the forecast this year. Volunteers will be around the Craig-Zenner fields, easy to find in their neon yellow T-shirts. Bill said volunteers receive great assistance from the Niskayuna Central School District and the town of Niskayuna.

The former supplies the grounds, shuttle buses and custodians. The latter provides barrels and barricades, personnel on tent-lighting and clean-up duties and pays for the fireworks show.

The Leaders look forward to the fireworks.

“At 8 o’clock at night, when things are winding down and we have a chance to sit down and get ready for the fireworks, you sit back and think about the day and the thousands of people who went through there and all the kids who had fun,” Bill said.

If longtime Niska-Day fans want to salute the Leaders for their service, they can. The couple has compiled a collection of all Niska-Day buttons, but they’re missing 1985 and 1988. If people are willing to part with those collectibles, the Leaders will complete their Niska-Day memory board.

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]


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