By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Most days Max Accardo is way too tall and pale to pass for Yoda, the wise but diminutive sage-green sage of “Star Wars” movie fame. But on Tuesday, size didn't matter.
It also didn't matter that Accardo's lime green skull cap didn't quite match the evergreen shade of greasepaint on his face, or that his brown robe was actually the lining of someone's winter coat, pulled from a closet during a department-wide costume scramble.
No one seemed to notice that his pointy cardboard ears were more floppy and goat-like than Yodish.
That's because it was Star Wars Day at Hood Park, and the tall green guy leading children in a Simon Says-inspired game of Jedi Master Says was making everyone's day.
“Master says yell like a Wookie,” said Accardo, evoking a mix of monkey growls and puzzled grunts.
“What's a wookie,” yelled a kid from the back.
Perhaps if Accardo had said “Yell like Chewbacca,” there would have been no confusion, because the only thing more universal than general Star Wars character knowledge is the joy a Star Wars-themed summer celebration brings to kids of all ages.
That's why Tuesday's festivities scored points across the board – even with the moms.
“This was something new this year – someone was telling me how excited the staff was about this event,” said Melissa DeMartino, lounging with a book while her 8-year-old son Joe, answering to Darth Vader for a day, was about to win a frozen light saber (freeze pop) for being the last villain standing in round one of Jedi Master Says.
“Next year they'll get more kids in costume, for sure,” said DeMartino. “It's great that the whole staff is dressed up – it shows the kids how cool it is to just have fun. When you don't want to spend a lot of money, all you need is a quarter for a Ring Pop, pack a lunch, and you're all set.”
Molly McDougal, 6, and Kendra Cyr, 7, looked like a pair of Princess Leias in a Doublemint Gum commercial. They didn't come together, and hadn't coordinated their outfits – which consisted of big white T-shirts belted at the waist, and carefully twisted and coiled pigtails.
They were too busy decorating their Wookie Cookies – pre-baked confections in the shape of Star Wars characters with custom trimmings – odd-colored icings, and a host of toppings including marshmallows, chocolate chips, sprinkles, nuts and M&Ms – to notice how identical they looked.
“We have a stellar rec department,” said Erika Veduccio, who was wrangling five kids for the day. “I feel grateful as a member of this community for all that they do for the kids. It's all free, and it's all fun.”
While Derry may not be unique in its quest to sooth the savage summer beast in all kids with a calendar filled with fun activities, it does provide a model for what ideally all parks and recreation departments should be striving for, said Chris Dillon, President of New Hampshire Recreation and Park Association, who currently serves as director of Recreation for the town of Salem.
“Recreation in any town provides a quality of life. Most recreation directors are members of our organization, which provides a place for networking and bouncing ideas off each other, so as you go from community to community, there's a sense of continuity,” said Dillon.
Kerry Horne, of the New Hampshire Local Government Center, learned during her time as Parks and Rec director for the town of Farmington, that good programming bonds a community.
“In terms of the function of municipal government, what's unique about parks and rec departments is that they become the heart of a community because they can reach every age group, from toddlers to senior citizens,” said Horne.
Keeping programming free or low cost is especially important to families in this economy.
“When you can keep people in their home communities for fun and recreation at a time when people are tightening their belts for free, or at an affordable cost, that's what people appreciate most,” said Horne.
“There are tons of towns and cities doing what Derry does – and many that don't, partly due to budget issues. But the biggest part of a successful parks and rec department is having the right staff in place. If the staff doesn't buy in, it's not going to work,” Horne said.
Which is why Derry Parks and Rec employee Jessica Scarlett had trouble keeping a straight face while overseeing Tuesday's activities at the park. She watched Accardo lead the costume parade, flanked by fellow employees Connor Porcelli as Luke Skywalker and Amanda Perry as Leia.
“We don't walk in a parade; we march,” Accardo instructed his followers, like a pointy-eared Pied Piper, lifting his knees to demonstrate the proper way to march.
Meanwhile, department employee Erik Hayes sporting a furry hoodie that doubled as an Ewok costume, lingered inside the park office with Justin Fairbanks as a suave Hans Solo, keeping an eye on the Wookie Cookie assembly line.
“The anticipation was high for Star Wars Day,” said Scarlett. “I didn't even ask the staff to dress up. They just showed up this way.”