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Rich Copley: Despite closing, Ichthus Festival legacy lives on with those who attended

Finances ended the Ichthus Festival, but 'legacy will live'

Herald-Leader Culture Columnist,Rich CopleyDecember 15, 2012 

There really wasn't supposed to be a second Ichthus Festival.

As Judy Lyon, widow of festival founder Bob Lyon, and her sons remember it, the only reason there was a second festival was that they made some money on the first one in 1970 and didn't know what to do with it. So they had another one.

Billed as a Christian folk festival, Ichthus predated the genre known as contemporary Christian music and grew as the genre grew into an annual Central Kentucky event that in its heyday drew 20,000 people a year to hear Christian music's biggest stars including Michael W. Smith, Third Day, Switchfoot and Tobymac.

But a week ago today, after 42 years, Ichthus came to an end.

Saddled with what appeared to be insurmountable debt, the Ichthus board announced Dec. 8 that Ichthus Ministries and the Festival were closing, and its assets, including the name Ichthus Festival, were being sold. Festival attorney Mark E. Nichols says he has heard from some parties interested in buying the organization as a whole and presenting an Ichthus Festival in some form.

But the announcement of its closing, following several years of pleas for financial help, seems fairly certain to bring to an end to the festival that was launched as a day-and-a-half event by Lyon and a group of students with a $600 budget in 1970 and renewed itself every year, growing to four days and a budget of more than $1 million.

"I know that a lot of people are affected by this, but I think that it probably hit the family as much, if not more, than most people because it was a part of our family all those years," says son Paul Lyon. "It started here, and when I first heard what had happened, it was almost like a death. Maybe not the death of a child, or something like that. I'm not talking about that severe. But there was that sadness."

Paul's brother Rob Lyon reflects, "I wish it hadn't ended this way. I wish they had thought things out a little bit better. It was almost like they felt that they needed to bring in huge bands to bring in the kids, and that was never the way Ichthus was before they made the move out there," referring to the move from the Wilmore Campground to the festival site known as Ichthus Farm in 1999.

Bob Lyon wasn't an obvious person to come up with the idea of Christian rock festival. The music didn't really appeal to him. But he saw, particularly through the phenomenon of the Woodstock Festival, that it did attract younger people and could be an avenue to appeal to them, even if his peers had their doubts that rock 'n' roll could be used to serve the kingdom of God.

"I can remember the second or the third year there were some bands — even for me, and I was a young kid who loved rock 'n' roll — I remember looking at some of these bands and thinking, 'Wow, I think we're all going straight to hell,'" Paul Lyon recalls.

Rob Lyon remembers a band called Dust that he said would blow most early 1970s churchgoers out of the sanctuary, "but they were Christians, and without something like Ichthus, I really don't think they had much of anyplace to play."

Bob Lyon's involvement as a formal director and organizer was fairly short-lived. Administration of the festival soon went to student directors who saw it grow as artists like Andre Crouch and Petra gained audiences and artists like Michael W. Smith came and were inspired by it.

Recalling seeing Crouch at Ichthus, Smith told the Herald-Leader in 2005, "I remember leaving there thinking, 'I want to do that.'"

Smith ended up being part of Ichthus history. He was on stage on the night of April 23, 2005, when it snowed on Ichthus, a day after severe thunderstorms ravaged the campground.

Ichthus had a long, tortured history with weather. Near-annual soakings made mud wrestling matches a tradition. The early 2000s brought several infamous festivals, including a deluge that made loading campers into the 2004 fest a nightmare and tied up traffic on Harrodsburg Road for hours.

The 2005 event was the last straw.

The next year, Ichthus moved to June. It was a change viewed by many as necessary, but that lost the Asbury-based core of volunteers the festival depended on. It also put Ichthus in competition with other festivals around the region.

That, and the move from the campgrounds to the farm, are frequently cited as critical turning points in Ichthus' history.

Some say they took the event away from its Wilmore and Asbury roots. Others say the moves were necessary because of growing crowds and dangerous weather.

But additional pressure on Ichthus came from financial winds blowing through Christian music, particularly the growing fees for headlining artists.

Mark Vermilion, the last Ichthus director, says fees have been an issue, particularly as the production values and accompanying expenses of those shows grew.

With mounting financial pressures, Vermilion had to oversee the trimming of budgets and staff the last few years, including moving his own position to part-time.

Tim Gerst, a volunteer staffer who oversaw Ichthus' social media operation, said this year's edition made him reflect on early Ichthuses.

"It made me think of the days when Bob Lyon started it," he says.

"We were all working so hard and had a passion to not see it die. It had impacted so many of our lives, and his legacy will live on in the thousands of lives that were changed by Ichthus."

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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