The Peach Blossom Festival has touched the lives of many in Fresno over the past 60 years.
The festival, presented by Fresno State’s Department of Communication, helps young people realize the importance of reading literature aloud and teaches them about interpretation, performance and being an audience member.
Each year, Fresno State communication students spend months planning every detail of the two-day event. Thousands of elementary school students from Merced to Tulare counties memorize poems and prose to present in front of judges. And dozens of community members volunteer to act as judges.
In celebration of Peach Blossom’s 60-year history, we are looking back at how it has impacted some of its previous participants. In November, we told the story of Stacy Batrich-Smith and her daughter Cassidy Smith, both of whom were Peach Blossom participants, 30 years apart, both reciting the same piece — “What is a Girl” by Alan Beck.
Today we bring you the stories of two more people who have been part of the Peach Blossom Festival history — Chuck Sant’Agata and the Hon. Judge Debra Kazanjian.
Some might know retired local public relations professional Chuck Sant’Agata as a past president of the Fresno State Alumni Association, from 1971 to 1973. Others might know him as the founding president of the Central California Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America in 1992.
But Sant’Agata worked on the first-ever Peach Blossom Festival in 1958 when he was a speech major at Fresno State.
“I remember helping with registration,” Sant’Agata said. “It was nothing like it is now. The scale of the event is so much different today.” The festival that first year had maybe 300 participants. “First we had to get schools interested.”
Later, once he was established in his public relations career and came back in Fresno in the 1970s, Sant’Agata was asked to come back to be a judge for Peach Blossom.
“You come here, you get a briefing, you get a badge, and then they assign you a room or an auditorium,” he said. “You get the forms that tell you how you judge the kids and they tell you to make a few comments about the kids.”
Sant’Agata has continued to come back to judge for nearly 40 years. He lights up as he talks about the children who prepare their recitations for the festival.
“The kids are so inventive,” he said. “Last year there was this one little boy about 9 or 10 that I just absolutely adored. He got up there and he did this poem that he had written himself. It was just phenomenal. He had an expression of the joy of telling it to an audience of 200 kids and parents and it didn’t even faze him. I said to myself, this kid’s gonna go somewhere! It was just marvelous.”
From the perspective as someone who made a career in the communicative arts, Sant’Agata ties that success back to why Peach Blossom is so important for young people:
“It gets kids interested in the arts and performing. Getting up and giving a speech is a very hard thing for a lot of people. Peach Blossom gives you the experience and realization that ‘Hey, I can do it!’ It’s a wonderful program to get young people interested in not being withdrawn. … I can see the success the program is having with the young kids, having thousands of them on campus
One Peach Blossom judge carries an extra level of gravitas — Fresno County Superior Court Judge Debra Kazanjian has been a judge several times in the past, stepping away from the bench of her courtroom downtown to a more fun kind of judging.
“The skills you gain as an evaluator, you learn how to be positive in your remarks, offer encouragement, offer constructive suggestions,” she said. Peach Blossom “brings positive reinforcement to the performer,” Kazanjian said. “They’re getting ideas and positive critiques about what they need to do. It’s a safe place to fail.”
Kazanjian, also a Fresno State alum, remembers what a tight-knit group of people she and her classmates were. She earned her bachelor’s degree in speech communications in 1974 before going on to McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, where she earned a juris doctorate.
Later she came home to Fresno. She had a private practice in family law and became a Superior Court judge in 2000.
“I think Fresno State is much like Fresno,” she said. “It’s a small town in a big city and that’s what I love. … You can get a hold of this town, you can make friends, you can make connections, whereas you’re just lost in even smaller cities.”
From her career in the legal field, Kazanjian knows how important those oral communication skill are that Peach Blossom teaches.
“It gives you the confidence to get up in front of a group of people. That’s something that’s hard to teach somebody. Seeing these little kids with the poise to be able to do that, to see them learn how to use inflection in their voice and to make the words from a page come alive — all of us sitting as judges knew these were kids that were going to be well ahead of the curve in life.”
And with the growth of social media, face-to-face skills need even more work than ever, Kazanjian said.
“The ability to communicate is so important, especially nowadays, seeing where technology has gone. Everyone is walking around, looking into a device. They don’t communicate with each other anymore. You drive home from work, you push a button, your garage door opens, you go into your house and you never say hello to your neighbors.”
The public is invited to come to the Peach Blossom Festival Diamond Jubilee from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, March 3, in the Smittcamp Alumni House. The reception will celebrate the festival’s 60-year anniversary. Tickets are $10 each, and proceeds benefit the Peach Blossom program.
RSVP by Wednesday, Feb. 21, to Sheela Sorensen at 559.278.7082.