A forest grew tall this year in Sherry Pettit’s living room.

Thick trunks with wrinkled brown bark reached up toward the cathedral ceiling of her Millard home.

Trees obscured the walls. Trees stood in the front hall. A big one was laid across the dining room table by the china cabinet.

“We have an eye tree. We have a butterfly tree. Just goofy stuff,” said Pettit, 67.

All had to be delivered Friday to a metro Omaha high school.

For 24 years, Pettit has crafted decorations to help set the mood at Millard North High School’s after-prom party.

Her streak is astonishing, considering that high school principals sometimes must beg for volunteers to pull off these late-night events.

This year, Pettit’s contribution is the “Forest of Fascination,” one of several fanciful scenes that will greet students arriving for tonight’s after-prom party. The theme is Fantasy ’15.

“She loves after-prom,” said Lee
Vrtiska, a friend who helped assemble and set up the cardboard-and-paper trees. “It’s just her passion.”

Beth Brunetti, one of the event’s organizers, called Pettit “our quiet hero.”

Hardworking, reliable and thrifty, Pettit always delivers — and under budget, Brunetti said.

“She’ll start working on next year’s prom theme in May,” she said.

Pettit said she’s in it for the fun. All the cutting and pasting is “just like kindergarten,” she said.

Beyond the pop-bottle flowers and pine cone creatures, however, there’s a serious side: keeping kids safe in the wee hours after the dance.

The popularity of post-prom parties increased in the 1980s. Concerns about underage drinking got parents thinking about providing safe after-prom alternatives. A 1984 prom-night tragedy involving two Millard South students further stoked concerns.

After attending prom, Beth Ann Brooks, 17, and Brian McEwen, 20, were killed when the Jeep Wagoneer that McEwen was driving plunged into a Sarpy County creek. The bridge had been removed to make way for the future Wehrspann Lake. Their bodies were not found for three weeks.

A year later, Millard North High School held its first “Casino Night” after-prom party.

Pettit recalls hearing about the tragedy. Her two daughters graduated from Millard North: Kerry Stinson in 1988 and Shandra Pettit in 1992 — which was the first year their mom got involved.

A neighbor who knew Pettit liked crafts invited her to help.

Pettit describes herself as a “Dumpster diver,” recovering and recycling unwanted junk for use in her creations.

One time she stumbled upon some old deck boards, which became a ship for the “Passport to Prom” theme.

“You really feel weird taking somebody’s garbage,” Vrtiska said. “But we’ve been known to do it.”

One of Pettit’s greatest triumphs was creating a roller coaster from drapery tubes and corner bead. The cars were cardboard boxes.

“There was a loop-the-loop and away it went, up to the second floor,” Pettit said.

Construction starts in earnest each January. A group of regular helpers gathers once a week at her home to assemble the decorations. The pace picks up as prom approaches.

Mindful of cost, she buys glue by the gallon and dilutes it. This year she and her helpers went through a gallon and a half.

She used 200 cardboard tubes provided by Hancock Fabrics for the trees, covering them with wrinkled brown paper to resemble bark. Backdrops for the scene are painted on surgical drapes.

“She’s the queen of recycling,” Vrtiska said.

Friday afternoon was zero hour as Pettit and other volunteers steered the bulky 8- and 9-foot tree trunks out her front door and loaded them into a white Penske truck.

Her task was to transform a 50-foot length of hallway into the whimsical forest. Every year, they work late on Friday and often part of Saturday.

Her daughters, son-in-law and grandkids help out. Her husband, Scott Pettit, was a longtime helper. He died in 2007.

She’s seen a lot of themes come and go: A Night at the Movies, Hangin’ Loose with Dr. Seuss, City Lights, Animate, Game Time.

Pettit said the homemade decorations make the event special. Last year, 900 kids attended.

“If we make the decorations, that’s an experience each year that the kids won’t get anyplace else,” she said. “And it’s for one night. Then it’s taken down. And that’s that.”

She believes that the after-prom parties have helped keep kids safe.

“There hasn’t — knock on wood — been an accident since ’84,” she said. “So I just have to think, we’re doing something right.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, joe.dejka@owh.com

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