March 9, 2015
Don Gerard’s kelly green T-shirt peeks through the top of a gray knit Izod sweater as he enters Merry Ann’s Diner at 8 a.m. Friday.
It’s the morning of his fourth Unofficial as Champaign’s mayor, and a grin has already spread across his face. A man wearing a Philadelphia Phillies sweatshirt exclaimed, “Hey look, it’s the mayor!” eliciting the diner of students, staff and other patrons to look at the opening glass doors.
The diner is filled with specks of green — a waitress’ T-shirt that she wears twice a year, St. Patrick’s Day and Unofficial, and the hint of a green Chief Illiniwek shirt beneath a student’s jacket — and the temperature outside has barely hit negative two degrees.
Already having done an interview with WLRW radio station, Gerard still faces a full day as facility manager for the University, in addition to duties as Champaign’s mayor and liquor commissioner, all while students binge drink for a campus tradition.
“It is a bar stunt that took on a life of its own,” Gerard says while drinking coffee from his aluminum travel mug. “It means something to a lot different people in a lot of ways. Everywhere you have large numbers of people, who are either getting close to or have reached the age of a particular right that is to abide in alcohol — you’re going to have things like this.”
With his first bid for re-election as Champaign’s mayor in exactly one month and a day after Unofficial, Gerard has learned that Unofficial is a part of the C-U culture and is now embracing the day — not destroying it.
What began in the mid-90s, Unofficial provides students an opportunity to celebrate the infamous drinking holiday that is St. Patrick’s Day while on campus. The March 17 holiday fell over spring break for several years, and bar owners recognized an opportunity to create sizable profits by promoting a stand-in celebration.
While the remnants of Gerard’s bacon, scrambled eggs and pancakes are being taken away, he is not only aware of what the remaining 15 hours of the day holds but is also ready to see it firsthand.
By early afternoon, stumbling is still a rarity, but green isn’t. Students, alumni and visitors walk the streets of Campustown — some looking for their next beer, most for their next class.
Gerard also walks from bar to bar, but to check in with owners and employees and see how the day has progressed.
As liquor commissioner, Gerard regulates and enforces liquor code in Champaign. Because Champaign has a city manager, Gerard said most people view the mayoral position as one with little power, except in certain regards including the regulation of liquor.
“On a day like Unofficial, I think that it’s important to come out and remind people that the mayor is also the liquor commissioner,” he said. “So it’s a big day for me.”
While community members, students and University employees all pass by Gerard — some quizzically, others aware of his position for the day — it’s the bar owners and employees that appreciate Gerard’s presence.
“It makes us feel like they’re not just picking on us,” said Sam Uher, a shift manager at White Horse Inn and 2012 University alumna. “If you sell liquor, it seems like a lot of people are against you.”
While Uher said bars on campus face a great deal of criticism on the holiday, having Gerard come to the bars and speak to employees allows them to feel comfortable throughout the day.
For Gerard, while the holiday has served a great deal of purpose for students, it is a massive asset for the city because of the tax money it generates.
“Tax money makes the city work so it is a pretty good boom,” Gerard said. “It’s not the event; it’s just the statistical numbers. There is a lot of positive aspects that benefit everybody whether you go or not. Whether you like it or not, there is a lot of tax revenue being generated.”
With breakfast and lunch specials over, the crowds go in search of spots for happy hour and dinner. Gerard is on his second and final trek through the campus bars.
Each stop averages about three minutes. The routine is the same: reveal a silver, five-point badge in his tan, leather two-fold wallet, introduce himself as liquor commissioner, talk to the person in charge (mostly the owners), thank everyone for sticking around and doing a good job, and depart for the next location.
The walks between bars are riddled with mysterious looks and shouts of recognition, perhaps from Gerard’s social media presence on Twitter or Facebook.
“Oh. My. God. You’re DonGerard!” exclaims one girl as he passes by at the intersection of Sixth and Green streets.
“You’re the mayor?!” another girl asks after Eric Meyer, the owner of KAM’S, explains that she had just interrupted his conversation with “The Mayor.”
His social media accounts stay active throughout the day. Gerard frequently retweets police and students posting about Unofficial, and posts pictures of students on the Quad and selfies with a table of men at Joe’s Brewery on his Facebook.
“I take pride that people recognize me when I walk down the street,” he says.
But as Gerard looks through the bars, he continues to notice trends — beer gardens are empty. Bars are not seven-deep. Owners and employees aren’t reporting any trouble.
Unofficial has changed from what it once was, but the mayor of Illinois’ 11th-largest city isn’t surprised.
“We have this all the time now. You have Cinco de Mayo, every Blackhawks game campus is flooded and bars are full,” he said. “If you are all going to do it at the same time … some things are going to go wrong, people come in from out of town, and we just have to do our best to try to help herd that in the right direction.”
Gerard, who attended the University in the mid-1980s, recognizes the considerations of surrounding, concerned community members, but he pressed that Unofficial is not a new drinking tradition. Instead, it’s a spirit that began with “Hash Wednesday” on the Quad in 1977, continued with Halloween celebrations and lives on now through Unofficial.
“It’s an American tradition, and if you squash one out, somewhere else it’s going to pop up,” he said. “Unofficial is what it is.”