The Five Points retailers were mad, and the business district’s bar and restaurant owners were fuming. The residents of the surrounding neighborhoods were enraged, too. And the City of Columbia Police Department demanded that something be done.
The rowdy behavior, illegal parking and public drunkenness that was the St. Patrick’s Day festival had reached a threshold as citations and arrests were rising.
“It was nothing but a drunken brawl when we started,” Jack Van Loan, the festival’s chairman, said. “There’s no other way to describe it.”
The festival, on the brink of shutting down in the mid-90s, will celebrate 30 years Saturday. This is also the final year Van Loan will be in charge.
“One thing we managed to do is we became credible,” said Van Loan, who has worked with the Five Points Association, the group that operates the festival, for two decades. “If there is one thing I’m terribly proud of from my stay here in Five Points, these 20 years, it’s going from incredible to credible.”
The Oregon native, a retired Air Force colonel, Vietnam veteran and ex-POW, said he’d clean up the festival.
“You totally lose credibility if you don’t live up to what you say you’re going to do,” said Van Loan, 80, who lives in Columbia with his wife, Linda. They have three sons.
The festival and the association have thrived under Van Loan’s leadership, but he’s quick to credit others.
“When we took this over, we had less than $300 in the bank,” he said. “Now we have well over three quarters of a million.”
From Oregon to South Carolina
Van Loan sounded like a no-frills philosopher when he said, “everything has a source.” Those were the first words of his response when asked how he ended up in South Carolina.
His mother, Lillian Van Loan, was the head of the Eugene Oregon Vocational School where, during World War II, she trained B-17 mechanics.
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to the school followed by a fleet of journalists. Roosevelt shared her experience with Henry “Hap” Arnold, the legendary and distinguished Air Force and Army general, who is the only person to hold a five-star rank in two different military branches. Arnold, one of the first United States Air Force pilots who was instructed in flight by the aviation pioneers the Wright Brothers, visited the school.
He accepted a dinner invitation from Van Loan’s mother. Arnold, sitting at a candle-lit table, turned his attention to Van Loan and his brother.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Jack, what do you want to be when you grow up?’” Van Loan recalled. “As hammy as it may sound, I said I want to be a pilot.
“I really loved flying, too. I miss that,” he continued. “But that led me right into spending six years as a POW, which I didn’t enjoy. But you pay your dollar and you take your chances. You don’t (complain) about it.
On May 20, 1967, Van Loan’s plane was shot down over North Vietnam. He was in a prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” enduring torture with fellow prisoners such as John McCain. While in prison he got to know Southern soldiers well, Van Loan says.
“You want to go to war, you go to war with a Southerner. They just won’t quit,” he said.
On March 4, 1973, Van Loan was freed. He was selected to be a wing commander and was stationed at Shaw Air Force Base for six years.
“When I got finished with that, I said, ‘Man, this place is where I want to be,’” he said. “The politics are good. People are friendly. They welcome the military here. That’s where I’ve been ever since.”
For a post-military job, Van Loan said he wanted to do something different and he was told to look into water filtration.
“I said, ‘What’s wrong with the water’,” Van Loan recalled. “He said, ‘Go find out,’ and I did. I couldn’t believe everything that’s wrong with water,” said Van Loan, who began selling filters door-to-door before opening a store on Santee Avenue in Five Points.
‘The right man’
Instead of going to the festival, some revelers were tailgating in surrounding neighborhoods, angering the residents. Measures, like charging for admission and ticketing illegally parked cars, were enforced.
“Jack was the right man at the right time,” said Richard Burts, a past Five Points Association president who asked Van Loan to lead the group in the early ’90s. “He had lots of integrity. Lots of discipline. I felt like he would be heard.”
In November 2002, after a year of disagreement, the Five Points Association and the St. Patrick’s Day Celebration Committee, the nonprofit that was behind the festival for 20 years, split. The Five Points merchants wanted more control over the festival and more direction over how the proceeds were spent, and the nonprofit group did not want to divert more of its contributions to the association.
“The important thing is we got people serving on the committee and running the festival who had a vested interest in Five Points,” Van Loan, who was paid $25,000 a year, said.
Separate festivals were scheduled on the same Saturday in 2003, though neither was held because the rain started early at 6:45 a.m., Van Loan said.
“And it rained until 9:30 that night. It never let up once,” he said. “It rained so hard we couldn’t get anything done. We had no alternative. We had no good rain plan. Boy-oh-boy, we had a rain plan after that I guarantee you. You learn from mistakes.”
The association had to ask city council for $35,000 to cover losses, but Van Loan wouldn’t accept the money unless the entire board agreed to pay it back. He wanted to remain credible.
“The Five Points Association sets the bar for how a professional association should work, and that’s because of Jack,” said former Columbia city council member Anne Sinclair. “The Five Points Association has been around for a long time, and there was tension between retail and hospitality. Jack built a bridge between those two groups of people.”
Merritt McHaffie, the executive director of the association who will now chair the St. Pat’s committee, agreed on Van Loan’s influence.
“Jack is one of the most respectable, honest, hardworking men I’ve ever known,” McHaffie said. “He’s gone through a lot in his life, and I imagine that he took his past experiences and put it into how he lives his life today. We are the organization we are because of Jack.”
Not only has Van Loan led efforts to take control of the festival and clean it up, he’s also spearheaded beautification projects like the Five Points Fountain, erected in 1997.
“When Jack sets his sights on something, he does not quit until it is accomplished and achieved,” McHaffie said.
The next undertaking to accomplish?
“The important thing is to keep doing something that’s useful and meaningful to you and I’m not sure what that’s gonna be, but it’s not going to be sitting around with my feet up,” Van Loan said.
He’s recorded more than 20 hours of tape of himself talking about the years as a POW.
“I have never written about my experiences in North Vietnam, and one of the reasons I haven’t is it’s difficult to go back and go through it again,” he said. “I’m thinking about the possibility of writing some memoirs about what happened there.
“That was a very, very difficult experience. And I want it to come across that way, but I don’t want it to seem like self-aggrandizement. I don’t want people to say he’s blowing his own horn.”
A story like that can only be told by someone who is credible, like Van Loan.
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.