August 29, 2014

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A basketful of memories: Lorainites recount memories with giant Easter basket

LORAIN — The story of the Easter basket at Lakeview Park cannot be told without harking back to Gerry Timko’s summer of 1969.

Timko, who along with her husband runs Arbor Lights Bed & Breakfast, a historic Victorian inn just steps away from Lake Erie on Lorain’s east side, has a classic coming-of-age tale featuring two teen girls, the boys who captured their fancy, a giant orange Easter egg made out of cement and a run-in with the Lorain police.

One recent afternoon, as she sat in the inn’s great room, Timko chatted about anything and everything Lorain. But the Easter basket story? That she’s reluctant to share — it’s not like she’s told it often.

Until now.

With a bit of prodding, Timko recalls laughing off an admirer’s promises to get her an enormous egg while they were out on a date. Moments later, with the thud of 75 pounds of concrete in the back seat beside her, she realized she was a passenger in the getaway car.

Dropped off at home with her bright-orange booty, she had no choice but to confess her crime and recruit two more conspirators: her parents. Mom and Dad were hosting friends for a standing card game, and Timko vividly recalls the strained whispers as each alternately sneaked away from guests between hands and tried to figure out what to do next.

First step, of course, was to conceal the bright orange thing — now settled comfortably in the back yard — with a tarp lest someone see it. Then what? They brainstormed and the ideas that surfaced included rolling it into a neighbor’s yard, burying it or chopping it to bits.

Finally, they conceded, police had to be called. Timko and her friend sneaked peeks from an upstairs window as her mother met with the officer sent to retrieve the egg.

In the days that followed, she read it in the newspaper and heard on the radio: Case closed — the stolen orange egg had been returned to its rightful place in the basket.

“To say the least, it reflects what a guy will do to make a girl’s wish come true,” she said.

As for the guy? She’s heard he’s long since moved to Florida.

Timko’s not alone in having a memory about the Easter basket. That’s because, for whatever reason, the giant cement basket in Lakeview Park — the one that almost didn’t get made because the idea just seemed too darn difficult — has become a special part of the hearts of Lorain residents. It’s a destination — a place where annual family portraits were and are snapped, and with each click of the camera, a slice of life in Lorain through the years is preserved.

Trisha Traut Bard’s memories include being nine months pregnant but not letting that get in the way of her family’s Easter-morning tradition. She began having contractions while visiting the basket and gave birth to Gavin Bard later that day.

And then there’s Antonio Barrios, who came to Lorain from Puerto Rico as a boy and remembers his trips to the Easter basket for the special connection it gave him to his new home.

“My brothers and I felt that we were becoming a part of this new country by partaking in this newfound tradition,” Barrios said.

A unique attraction

The Lorain Easter basket was almost never built.

Dave Shukait, the basket’s eventual builder, said it couldn’t be done when he first was approached with the idea by George Crehore, the city parks superintendent at the time, after Crehore’s young son asked for a giant basket at the park.

Not only did Shukait build it, but the people came — and have continued to come for nearly 70 years of Easter mornings.

And why do they come? Few get very far when they try to put a reason into words. Like any good tradition, people do it because they’ve always done it and because their parents and their grandparents did it before them.

But come they do. And they take photos.

Each photo is a unique snapshot of growing up in Lorain. But viewed collectively, they read like a pictorial memoir of the city.

Plenty of changes are obvious: the fashions, the cars in the backgrounds, the basket itself.

But it’s clear that even more remains the same. The faces staring back into the camera come from a variety of cultures, classes and generations to celebrate the one uniquely Lorain tradition they share. They’re the resilient residents of an even more resilient city, smiling proudly whether that year’s Easter feast will be bountiful or sparse. And, of course, there’s the weather. It’s always been pretty much a toss-up whether the basket-goers end up basking in the sun of a 70-degree day or trudging through a foot of snow.

Of course, when it does snow, it only makes the memories that much better.

“Some of the most memorable family photos, not to mention the worst family photos ever taken of my family, were taken at the Lorain Easter basket on or around Easter Sunday,” said Lorain native Paul Baumgartner. “Let’s face it: Easter Sunday is usually wet, white, cold, windy or gray in Lorain.”

But what really sets the Easter basket apart?

Lorain, not to mention Lakeview Park, has plenty of attractions popular with locals and visitors alike. Unlike the lighthouse, Palace Theater, Bascule Bridge and Lakeview fountain, folks visit the basket to turn their backs on it. The Easter basket is content to be a backdrop: Photos and memories of the basket are as much about the people as the place.

“I remember being very excited about the picture because it wasn’t a usual thing for us back then to sit for pictures,” Barrios said. “We got on Easter best clothes and father had us make sure our shoes were well dressed as well. The Easter basket appeared so huge that it was a challenge to try to climb it, but we were soon caught and reprimanded that we weren’t supposed to be getting our nice clothes so dirty.”

And that’s what Bret Morgan got a kick out of watching from his childhood home across the street.

“Every year we would get together and see what brave souls would turn out to jump from the rock wall (across the moat) to the grassy area under the basket,” he said. “Several would make the jump over, which was easy. Most made it back, but some would fall short and wind up in the water, ruining their Easter Sunday dresses and suits.”

A unifying site

Deanie Shukait has fond memories of going to the basket as a child. Even though she was a tomboy and wasn’t used to dressing up, she couldn’t help but admire all the Easter finery: women in heels, hats, bonnets, gloves and corsages, and men in buttoned-up suits. She couldn’t have known it then, but she would one day have a special connection to the basket — she married Frank Shukait, grandson of the basket’s maker.

She’s since worked tirelessly as Easter basket historian, compiling an extensive collection of newspaper clippings and historical documents.

And the family room of her Lorain home pays homage to that mission. The walls are covered with family photos at the basket, Easter basket postcards, Lorain commemorative plates featuring the basket and much more.

But basket-making in their families or not, it’s clear there are plenty who consider the basket their own.

Mindi Cocco Flynn made the newspaper as a child getting her Easter picture taken. And she didn’t grow out of her love of the basket: She and husband Guy made sure to pose there for wedding photos last summer.

Chris Camp plans to bring back a tradition that stopped when his grandparents died: This year he, his wife and his parents will be taking daughter Nicolette for her first Easter pictures.

Brother and sister Courtney and Josh Vardous remember how the basket got their family a special visit from the mayor.

“Our cousin Mary Kramp (nee Papadakis) complained to the mayor in the ’80s about the fact that the Easter basket decorations were taken down right after Easter,” Courtney said. “We’re Greek Orthodox, so our Easter is usually celebrated a week or two later.”

Then-Mayor Alex Olejko not only heard her out but joined the family for Easter lamb that year. And the basket has remained decorated for Orthodox Easter ever since.

Roman Kniahynyckyj made the trip to the basket every year with his grandparents, who lived two houses down from the park. What does the basket mean to him?

“To me, it’s a singular unifying symbol around which all Lorainites can rally,” Kniahynyckyj said. “Although a lighthouse guides our way, the Easter basket makes us whole.”

Lorain’s other Easter baskets

Most people living in Lorain know the Lakeview Park basket isn’t Lorain’s only Easter basket.

Basket maker Dave Shukait built a smaller, round basket that sits alongside state Route 57 in South Lorain’s Oakwood Park.

But few people know the rest of the story. Shukait actually built anywhere from four to seven even smaller baskets, some of which can still be found around Lorain. Shukait built the first four baskets for his home and for each of his three sons — Andy, Louie and Ed. Beyond that, the details get sketchy. A basket may have been built for a priest friend in Pennsylvania, and there may be baskets in Texas and Michigan.

The basket built for son Ed now sits in front of the home of his son and daughter-in-law, Frank and Deanie Shukait, on Winger Drive in Lorain, garnering plenty of attention despite its quiet location. People frequently knock on the door to ask about the basket or ask to take their picture with it, Deanie Shukait says.

Deanie Shukait cares for her basket, giving it paint touch-ups and an occasional complete paint job, just like its bigger cousin at Lakeview. She even completely emptied the basket once to inspect its condition inside and out. Her rare glimpse of the inside confirmed — that like any woven basket, it has the same weave inside as out.

Oldest son Andy gave his basket to a family friend, Rita Mrdenovich, before moving to Florida in the 1980s, and it now sits in front of her home on Elyria Avenue in Elyria Township. Mrdenovich says she’d always admired the basket, and Andy had always admired her holiday decorations and knew the basket would find a good home with her.

Two other baskets are known still to be in the Lorain area: one sits in front of a home on Orchard Hill Boulevard, off Cooper Foster, and another in the backyard of a home just south of Lorain’s Central Park.

What about the other three possible baskets? If you happen to be in Pennsylvania, Texas or Michigan, keep your eyes peeled.