When fireworks light up the darkened sky over Kirkland, Ill., this July 4, spectators of the colorful display can once again thank Frank Thomas for making it a sparkling success.
For the last 20 years, Thomas—known locally as The Bomber because of his expertise with pyrotechnics—has been the man behind the scenes of an event that draws an estimated 10,000 people to the northern Illinois town of 1,200 each Independence Day.
"We thrive on the Fourth of July. We get all gung-ho about it," says Thomas, a semi-retired auto body specialist, who lives with his wife, Dorothy, in nearby Esmond, Ill. "It's interesting trying to decide on something that will look right."
As chairman of the fireworks committee for the Kirkland Lions Club, Thomas, 63, spends all year planning a show that lasts about 45 minutes, but brings heartfelt satisfaction to himself and a cheering crowd.
"He doesn't look for the pat on the back. He's more concerned with wanting it all to come off flawlessly," says Jeff Anderberg, advertising chairman for the Kirkland Lions Club. "He takes great pride in putting on the best possible show."
Every year Thomas travels to Burlington, Iowa, to pick out the fireworks that will blow away last year's display. Months ahead of time, he and Lions Club members spend hours planning each part of the town's four-day celebration, right down to the last shell in the fireworks finale. And, when July 4 arrives, Thomas and other volunteers spend 12 hours pounding the stakes of fireworks racks into the ground and wiring each round.
And for all of his efforts, Thomas doesn't earn a dime.
"He gives 100 percent. He goes all out—he starts working on it a year ahead of time," says Ken Freeman, a Kirkland native who has served 10 years on the Fourth of July committee with Thomas. "He lives for the fireworks. All he cares about is that it's a good show."
Still, Thomas credits spectators with the growing success of the annual event. Each $1 ticket purchased to see the fireworks pays for the following year's display, which this year will cost $15,000. Additional proceeds come from other Lions Club activities, the village of Kirkland, and dedicated donors.
"Each ticket helps the whole operation," Thomas says. "The Lions Club appreciates people buying the tickets, because that's what makes it better."
Thomas first got involved with fireworks while working at the Sycamore (Ill.) Speedway in 1960. During intermission, he launched aerial displays to entertain race fans.
After Thomas moved to Esmond, he joined the Kirkland Lions Club. When members found out about his flair with fireworks, they enlisted his expertise. Before long, he was planning shows for the club.
"I enjoyed it the more I did it, the more I got involved," he says.
Over the last 40 years, Thomas has witnessed how fireworks technology has changed. Today's shells are smaller, launches are electronically controlled, and the entire process is safer and more convenient, but also more time consuming.
"It's easier to do it, but it takes longer because you have to run each wire. We don't just stick some pipes in the ground and shoot them off," he says.
On July 4, a year's worth of preparation comes together with red, white, and blue explosions that can be seen by people lining the county roads for miles around Kirkland. For the finale, more than 600 bombs explode in brilliant color over the high school football stadium, where bedazzled spectators applaud the patriotic salute.
"When I shoot one (volley of fireworks) off and hear the crowd cheer, I think, I'll do that again next year," Thomas says. "I'll do it as long as they'll let me."