Do You Know Mr. Woolly Worm?
Roy Krege Is Festivalís Human Mascot
Talking with Roy Krege isn’t all that hard. Just mention the third week of October, and he’ll do the rest.
Don’t know him? You’d know his face. Like the guy who got onto an elevator with him in Atlanta, and asked, “Say, aren’t you that Woolly Worm guy?”
Sure enough, Krege was, and still is. He’s been answering to “Mr. Woolly Worm” for some time now as a tireless promoter of Banner Elk’s annual Woolly Worm Festival for 33 years.
This weekend’s festival, taking place Saturday and Sunday, October 16 and 17, at Banner Elk Elementary School, will again feature woolly worm racing. Saturday’s grand champion worm wins the right to predict wintry weather, and the worm owner receives a $1,000 prize. The festival raises money to support Avery County children and other organizations.
Originally helping introduce funnel cake to the Woolly Worm Festival in the late ‘70s with wife Marion, Krege and his personality were soon pushed to the front as master of ceremonies after a couple of years. He has held that post ever since.
Born in New York, grabbing some sun in Florida, and finally arriving in the High Country in 1968 from Jefferson County, Tenn., Krege has found a home. And he’s been giving back since he arrived. Krege served 27 years as vice president at Lees-McRae College and another 10 at the Grandfather Home for Children, both in Banner Elk. He retired in 2004.
Upon retirement, he was sought after as a host and promoter of local charity events in addition to his work with the Woolly Worm Festival. “The only thing [that changed] when I retired was that I stopped getting paid,” he said.
As representative of the Woolly Worm Festival, Krege has done hundreds of media interviews. In the past week alone, he’s driven to High Point, Bristol and Johnson City, Tenn., and Greeneville, S.C. He also appears at local schools, businesses and charity events around the Banner Elk and High Country area.
“Terry Chappell, a traveling referee with the Harlem Globetrotters,” Krege said, “once told me that while on tour in Istanbul, Turkey, he and the Globetrotters heard a story on the radio about the Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, North Carolina. It does seem to get around.”
He takes live woolly worms with him, sometimes for show, other times for a race. “It’s amazing how many people have never seen or felt a woolly worm,” he said.
His mascot Merryweather—played by a host of individuals, including Susan Freeman of the Avery County Chamber of Commerce, and also Adam Binder—is usually in tow. Krege wears his trademark pink pants, decaled shirt and ball cap resplendent with five dozen miniature badges and a toy woolly worm up front. He grows a full beard for the festival, wears glasses and used to let woolly worms crawl around him, but that stopped one day when he brushed his lower lip against what he thought was his moustache. Turns out it wasn’t.
Never accused of lacking humor, he borrows inspiration for the festival on everything from Worldwide Wrestling to the Olympics. As he calls out, “Are you ready to Ruummmmble?!,” trainers prepare their woolly worms for the climb. After the race, the winner must appear before a clinical doctor’s mock test for steroid use. As Krege is wont to say, “All our winners are Avery County Health Department approved!”
His woolly worm hunting occurs anytime and any place. “Some years there just aren’t a lot around,” he said, meaning he stops for asphalt rescues on highways. “I’ve come close to causing a wreck, really…but if I don’t get any there, I can always go over to the country club and get the high-class worms,” he snickers.
But there’s no joking when he attributes his reason for involvement as Christian servanthood. “It is inborn in our family that you help others in the community,” he said.
Avery County Chamber of Commerce Director Susan Freeman backs that up.
“He is an ambassador of this whole event and the county at large,” she said. “His heart falls on charities.”
Festival planner Dave Calvert’s first thought of Krege is someone “who gives back…is always upbeat…always doing right by others.”
Recalling one of his favorite festival moments, Krege becomes emotional.
“There was this boy whose pastor brought him to the festival,” Krege said, his eyes tearing up, voice cracking. “He stopped to say a prayer because his mother was sick, and he said his Mom needed the money. Once the race began, his entry was trailing, but as the leader neared the finish, it just stopped. The boy’s woolly worm pulled ahead to win. How does that happen? He needed to win and he did.”
In addition to the Woolly Worm Festival, throughout the year Krege hosts and announces charity events for civic clubs, Chamber of Commerce and county fair functions, square dancing, line dancing—and his personal favorite—teaching dance at talent shows to hundreds of kids at once.
“He’s a dancing fool,” said Calvert. “He cuts up at the Woolly Worm Ball with all the adults.”
Krege, 68, says he may let someone else handle his festival duties as soon as next year. “There’s always a need for new blood at some point,” he says.
Woolly Worm Festival Saturday and Sunday
The Woolly Worm Festival will take place in downtown Banner Elk Saturday, October 16, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday, October 17, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for kids ages 5 to 12 and free for those under 5. Tickets will be sold at the gate.
The woolly worm that wins heat after heat of races up a three-foot length of string earns the honor of predicting this winter’s weather forecast. Entering a worm costs $5, and the races begin at 10:00 a.m. on both days. Each heat consists of 20 worms, and races will continue all day until the grand finale around 4:00 p.m. The overall winner of the events Saturday will receive $1,000, and the esteemed honor of predicting the winter weather; Sunday’s winning worm will receive $500.
The Woolly Worm Festival, co-sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk and the Avery County Chamber of Commerce, draws more than 20,000 people, 140 vendors, 1,000 worm trainers and national media crews to Banner Elk each year.
For more info, call the Avery Chamber at 828-898-5605 or click to www.woollyworm.com.