Remembering Sunset Festival Co-Founder Debbie Mulcahy
Debbie Mulcahy of Lake in the Hills died in June after a long battle with cancer. She helped start the village's annual Summer Sunset Festival.
But just as organizers and volunteers are busy with last-minute preparations for this year’s fest — slated for this weekend — there’s one smiling face everyone is missing: festival co-founder Debra “Debbie” Mulcahy.
Debbie passed away on June 1 after a nine-year battle with cancer at the age of 57.
“Debbie was a very sweet, very determined person,” said Caroline Wolfe, a neighbor and longtime friend of the Mulcahys. “She was very involved with her community, moreso than the average person.”
Debbie Mulcahy and her husband, Lake in the Hills Board Trustee Paul Mulcahy, moved to the area in the late 1990s just when the village’s population was burgeoning. Lake in the Hills lacked the traditional downtown center most communities enjoy.
Paul Mulcahy thought a festival would be a great way to bring the thousands of new residents together for music, food, games and other fun. Debbie Mulcahy was in on the idea from the start, but initially the pair received a lukewarm reception from some village leaders.
“Some people really weren’t interested in the idea at first,” Paul Mulcahy said.
“And they questioned why we would want to have it at Sunset Park. I like to think I’m an idea person, but my wife had all the organizational skills," Paul Mulcahy said. "She’s the one who actually returned e-mails, and organized everything. We worked well together. But it never would have worked without her.”
Debbie Mulcahy Wore Many Volunteer Hats
Debbie Mulcahy had her pulse on the community, and knew what people wanted. She also had all the right connections when soliciting volunteers.
She served for 15 years as trustee on the Algonquin Area Public Library District Board and held two terms as president of the LITH Youth Athletic Association Board. She was a member of St. Mary Catholic Church in Huntley.
Together, she and Paul raised four children — Kevin, Christy, Colleen and Kimberly — and made many friends where they lived on Peartree Drive. Many of those Peartree Drive neighbors ultimately became the driving workforce behind the festival.
“You just couldn’t say ‘no’ to Paul and Debbie,” Wolfe said, with a laugh. “They’re just too nice, and they’re really fun to work with.”
Paul said he and his wife tried to delegate as many duties possible to the many volunteers who made the festival a reality every year. The Summer Sunset Festival is a village event, but has always been organized by volunteers.
Debbie had a four-year period when her cancer was in remission since her original diagnosis of breast cancer nine years ago. When her cancer returned in 2007, Debbie continued to coordinate the festivities, even while coping with chemotherapy treatments.
“Debbie had been very strong for so long,” Wolfe said. “And she just loved the festival — it’s like a ginormous block party. We look forward to it every year. The kids look forward to it every year.”
This past year, the Mulcahys stepped down from their roles as co-chairpersons of the festival, and Debbie continued what friends described as a courageous battle with cancer.
“She fought it hard,” Paul said.
The Show Must Go On
As preparations for the festival move foward, committee members miss the contribution of the founders.
"We're missing both of them," said LITH Parks and Recreation Director Trudy Wakeman.
Wakeman has served on the festival committee since the start of the Sunset Festival.
"Deb was a person who could get things done. She was a steady force who could troubleshoot. She was a very bubbly person with a dry sense of humor, and she had good ideas," Wakeman said. "She thought outside the box, and we miss that. We miss her smiling face. Our (festival) committee has been a family for 10 years now."
Sunset Festival in its 11th Year
Now, 11 years later, the Sunset Festival has found its own niche, providing residents with an end-of-summer celebration every Labor Day weekend when the weather has proved cooperative.
Attendance continues to rise year after year, and unlike many other area festivals, Summer Sunset Festival not only covers its own expenses, it has made approximately $40,000 the past couple of years, which was returned to the festival’s general fund for the next year’s event.
“The philosophy of this festival always was that if you wanted to go down there, walk around and listen to music, you wouldn’t have to spend a dime to have a good time,” Paul Mulcahy said. “There’s no admission, no parking fee. There are free games for the kids. The parade is free. If you want to run, there’s the 5K run.”
“And I think it has stayed a family-oriented event, which is a good thing and what we always meant for it to be,” Paul Mulcahy said.
Paul is looking forward to performing as a guitarist with his band, “No Left Turn” on Sunday afternoon at the festival. The band, originally called “Ruf Groove,” played for the first time last year and had a “blast,” he said.
Other than that, Paul said he’s not sure what else he’ll do at this year's festivities. He may listen to music, or sample the food. He’s just not sure. It’s different this year without his wife.
“Every day I cry, and yet every day I laugh,” said Paul, who had just returned from the cemetery, where he left flowers at Debbie's grave.
“Sunday, August 21st would have been our 29th wedding anniversary. She was the girl next door. She was 10, and I was 9," Paul Mulcahy said. "When I was a kid I thought she was annoying. She was the skinny girl with the pigtails.”
The pair ran into one another years later, and Paul immediately asked Debbie to lunch for “old times sake.”
“I made up some story to go back and ask her to lunch,” said Paul Mulcahy, with a laugh. “She knew I was asking her out. She knew.”