A closer look at the human-sized Easter chicken in Tuolumne’s annual Easter egg hunt on Saturday will reveal Debra Munsel in a costume she bought for the occasion.
Barbara Persson (left) and Debra Munsel dress in their Easter best at the park in downtown Tuolumne. Maggie Beck/Union Democrat, copyright 2012
And, perhaps, if they squint just right, some people may see her late father chuckling as he watches her from above. Munsel is the daughter of longtime Tuolumne volunteer and public servant Jerry Whitehead Sr., who died in November 2007 of complications from a stroke suffered in July 1999.
Over the years, he was Tuolumne’s Great Pumpkin, Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, along with being a volunteer firefighter, taking care of the town’s swimming pool, parks, public buildings and cemetery, and being on the board of directors of the Park and Recreation District.
In addition to playing the Easter chicken, Munsel is now the Great Pumpkin during the Halloween season, hosting elementary school classes that visit the Tuolumne Community Garden in October and leading the Halloween Parade through town.
She also plays the Christmas Elf at the Christmas parade and party in December.
“When I was younger, I wouldn’t have dreamed of dancing around in a chicken costume,” Munsel said, “but now I get it.”
Munsel, 56, said she feels what she calls the pure joy her father got out of doing such things as being the town Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and all-around active community member.
“He loved kids, and he knew that if you got the kids involved, the parents and grandparents would follow,” she said.
Munsel chose to be a chicken instead of a bunny for the Easter Egg hunt, which will be held at 11 a.m. in and around Tuolumne’s West Side Memorial Park.
“You couldn’t have Easter eggs without the chicken,” she said with a laugh. “I lay them. The bunny just delivers them.”
Close to Munsel at the Easter egg hunt will be the Easter Bunny, bearing a slight resemblance to Tuolumne native Barbara Persson, 77, long known for being a helper at virtually every community activity that happens in town.
She recalls spending many holidays working with Whitehead at community events.
This will be the second year Persson and Munsel are working as a fantasy duo during the annual Easter Egg hunt, but the spirit of making memories for hundreds of children dates back decades.
Whitehead lived long enough to see his daughter win a seat on the Tuolumne Park and Recreation Board of Directors four years ago, though he died before she officially took her seat on the board.
Munsel said she was never a community activist until being approached about running for a seat on the board her father had been so much a part of.
“I wanted to fill his shoes,” she said, “but now I know I could never do that. I don’t think anybody could. I have my role on the board, though. I’m the cheerleader. With all the budget cuts, I try to make sure we don’t lose activities for the kids.”
Munsel was born to Jerry and Sharol James Whitehead in 1956.
She married her high school sweetheart, Richard Munsel, in 1976. They were divorced for about 10 years, then remarried in 2004. They have two grown children, Jayleen Bullock and Kelleen Munsel, and four grandchildren, Mayleen Bullock, Emaleen Bullock, Jayla Bissett and Gage Bissett, all of Tuolumne.
Munsel has spent most of her life as a homemaker, along with driving a school bus for Sonora High School, being a lifeguard, giving swimming lessons and playing softball on the Bamber Trucking team.
She has been a medical transport driver for the Tuolumne Me-Wuk Indian Health Center for the past five years.
Munsel said she is having more fun trying to follow in her father’s footsteps than she has ever had in her life.
“It’s the kids,” she said. “I love them, and they love me in those costumes. A lot of us chose to stay in this community after we grew up because of our childhood memories of its unique, small town atmosphere, and we don’t ever want to see it go away.”