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Tracing Tracy Territory

Balloons at the park — it’s been a quarter century

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Brent Stockwell

Brent Stockwell began organizing July Fourth balloon liftoffs at Lincoln Park a quarter-century ago in 1994. For health reasons, he was unable to be at this year’s liftoff, but he hopes to return next year.

Thumbing through past editions of the Tracy Press last week, I ran across a story with a dateline of July 1994. It reported that for the first time, balloons would lift off on the Fourth of July from Lincoln Park.

It didn’t take me long to realize that this year’s balloon launch marked the 25th anniversary of what has been a popular start for many Tracyites’ Fourth of July holiday.

I had hoped to tell Brent Stockwell about the quarter-century milestone at this year’s launch, but because of health problems, he couldn’t make it.

At nearly all the 25 liftoffs since 1994, Brent, operator of Balloon Excelsior, was at the park on July Fourth morning, directing the areas where balloons were to be filled with hot air from natural-gas blasts and making sure all the balloons lifted off safely.

He has been doing all of this without charging a cent to the Tracy Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors Lincoln Park activities on the Fourth, or the city of Tracy.

Wednesday, I called Brent at his business in Manteca, to remind him of the anniversary, and he remembered the inaugural balloon liftoff in 1994.

“I had established close ties with Tracy for more than a decade,” he said. “I had lifted off many times at Tracy Airport and had landed in cooperative farmers’ fields. It was a gift to Tracy to thank the community for its support.”

The idea of having a liftoff at Lincoln Park was spawned jointly in 1994 by the late Glenn Willbanks, then chamber president, and myself. Glenn wanted to add something to the Fourth of July in the park, and we came up with the possibility of a balloon liftoff. I told Glenn that I knew Brent, then working out of Oakland, and offered to see if he would be interested. Without hesitation, Brent said he would.

On the Fourth, he and his wife, Christine Kalakula, showed up at Lincoln Park with seven balloons. Most years since, it has averaged four or five. This year there were two.

Over the years, there have been several cancellations. One year, the liftoff was called off by high winds, and another was axed by extreme heat. This year, it was a perfect morning with hardly a whisper of wind, sending the balloons southwest from the park instead of southeast.

Brent had been at every Fourth of July liftoff until a few years ago, when he was seriously injured in an auto accident in Manteca, where he had moved his balloon instruction, sales and repair business.

While getting around with the help of a walker, he was able to return to Lincoln Park to watch balloon liftoffs in Lincoln Park a few years later, but he has been unable to go up in a balloon himself in recent years while still organizing the liftoff.

“After the accident, I’ve had about a dozen operations to repair 20 broken bones,” he told me Wednesday. “I have my last operation scheduled on a foot this week.”

Ballooning isn’t as popular as a sport these days as it was 25 years ago, he said, but he is keeping his business open with two repair technicians and space to store balloons commissioned for sale. And he still plans to continue the Lincoln Park balloon liftoffs next Fourth of July.

If his foot surgery goes well, Brent may show up next year, too. It would be great to see him back to join in what so many of us Tracyites love doing — kicking off our July Fourth holiday by watching those colorful balloons ascend from Lincoln Park into the Tracy sky.

Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.

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