Building the bonfire from scratch

Published: Dec 18, 2023

a crowd gathers at a bonfire at dusk
The 2023 Homecoming Bonfire burns bright. (Marlayna Demond '11/UMBC)

At UMBC, we’re still young enough to be making traditions. Meet Thomas Locastro, biological sciences alumnus, who knew from day one on campus in 2003 that he wanted to leave behind a lasting legacy.

Locastro joined the newly-made First Year Council, designed to help students view themselves as co-creators of our campus community. “They were encouraging us to pick something to do,” Locastro explains. “How do you leave your mark?”

Thomas Locastro holds a flaming stick to an unlit bonfire in the foreground and smiles.
Thomas Locastro says David Hoffman, Ph.D. ’13, language, literacy, and culture, the director of UMBC’s Center for Democracy and Civic Life, was his biggest supporter in this endeavor. Hoffman, who took this photo of Locastro lighting the first bonfire, says, “The big lesson in Thomas’s story is that students really can bring their vision and talents to the collaborative work of making UMBC’s future bright.”

Locastro brainstormed an idea that would be exciting for students but still relatively inexpensive, and therefore hopefully repeatable. He landed on a bonfire. In the center of campus.

Understandably, there were some roadblocks. But Locastro had staff members to champion his idea. Jen Dress, then the coordinator for the students events board, was integral to the process. “We are really dedicated to figuring things out when students come to us with dreams to make things happen,” says Dress, now director of engagement for Campus Life.

three people pose outside at dusk in front of a dorm building
Thomas Locastro, Tess McRae ’22, and David Hoffman gathered at the 2023 Homecoming Bonfire. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

The other MVP, says Locastro, is Glen Cook, a member of the grounds crew who collects pallets leading up to the fire and is always trying to make the conflagration bigger and better (while staying safe).

“I talked to so many people before I found the right people to really push the idea forward for approval with me,” Locastro says. Since the first bonfire in 2004, Locastro has attended every lighting since.

“I’ve flown back from Saudi Arabia to make this event,” Locastro says. “I’ve flown back from Monaco. I’ve flown back from a lot of places in the U.S. I’ve never missed it.” 

Thousands of students have warmed their hands at the last 19 years of bonfires. What tradition will you start at UMBC?

Video by Elijah Davis, M.F.A. ’21

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