Brandy Thompson of Rincon waited behind a few hundred other people Saturday in a line that wound partially around the track at Effingham County High School.
She and her 5-year-old daughter Morgan were there to meet the special guests for Marlow Elementary School’s Super Saturday Festival — Junior Edwards, his wife Theresa and son Willie from the History Channel’s popular show “Swamp People.” Morgan enjoyed the festival’s kids’ activities while her mother waited patiently in line.
“The reason I’m in this long line is to get an autograph from Willie for my daughter,” Thompson said. “She absolutely loves Willie. He’s her favorite on the show.”
Jon Morgan and his father Dave were farther up in line, having arrived at ECHS about an hour before the festival’s 11 a.m. start. They said waiting an hour for the gates to open and another hour in line was worth it.
“I watch every episode — and all the reruns, too,” Dave Morgan said. “They’re like people next-door.”
Marlow Elementary moved its spring festival to the ECHS campus to accommodate the large crowd anticipated for the celebrity guests, and the community did not disappoint. A crowd estimated at 3,000-3,500 people turned out for autographs and photos with the “Swamp People.”
The festival was scheduled to end at 4 p.m., but Junior, Willie and Theresa stayed until the last people in line got their photos and autographs around 4:45. The festival raised $12,000-$14,000 for Marlow Elementary, according to an estimate by PTO President Robert Grant.
“I’m ecstatic,” Grant said. “It was an incredible day with perfect weather, and ultimately it all comes down to the kids having a great time. We couldn’t have asked for a better day.”
While many of the festival goers were from Effingham, several others traveled longer distances. Mike and Rhonda Harden and their sons Wesley, 17, and Chris, 12, drove an hour-and-a-half from Brunswick.
Rhonda, the sister of Marlow Elementary media specialist Kim Sheffield, said they bought their tickets well in advance. Meeting the “Swamp People” was a belated present for Chris’ birthday on Feb. 21, but his family kept it a secret until they were in the car.
“We told him, ‘We’re going to see Aunt Kim this weekend,’” Rhonda said. “On the way up here, we told him the real reason.”
While the Hardens were all together for the festival, Kim Walker and her son Patrick were missing one member of their family. Patrick’s father, 1st Sgt. Robert Walker, is currently stationed in Afghanistan, Kim said.
The deployment is the 10th of her husband’s Army career, she added. So Patrick stood in line for Junior, Willie and Theresa to sign a T-shirt and a poster for his father.
“He loves the ‘Swamp People.’ He’s here for his dad,” Kim said. “We’re going to send it (the care package) to him this week.”
The television show profiles the Edwards family and others spending their days on the water and living off the land. Junior said he, Theresa and Willie have traveled to different towns to mingle with fans “about every weekend” since “Swamp People” premiered four years ago.
“It’s fun going places and meeting different people,” Junior said. “I told my wife when we got married 31 years ago that I was gonna be on TV one day. She said, ‘You’re crazy.’
“Well, we made it.”
In addition to the “Swamp People,” trapper Jack Douglas had a live alligator at the festival, Georgia Southern University’s Center for Wildlife Education brought some of its animals and the South Effingham High School FFA livestock team hosted a petting zoo. The festival included live music and food and crafts vendors.
Junior, Theresa and Willie Edwards were impressed by the turnout for the fundraiser and the hospitality they received during their time in Effingham.
A man of few words, Willie summed it up: “Good little town.”