Budding Relationships

Two people sit on a decorated Cal Poly Rose Parade float in the 1980s

Hal and Liz Ahlstrom on the 1983 float, “While the Catʼs at Play.” Photos courtesy of the Ahlstrom family

Many Mustangs meet lifelong friends and spouses through their time building floats, but one family may have the strongest connection of all.

The Ahlstrom family boasts two generations of float leaders whose romances blossomed through the program.

The story began in the fall of 1981 amid design week in Pomona before the debut of “Way Out Welcome.” Hal (Electronic Engineering ’84), the program’s chairman at the time, met his future wife, Liz (Natural Resources Management ’84), on a cold day during a less-than-glamorous tradition: helping newcomers christen their bright white coveralls with mud.

Hal threw Liz in a puddle, and Liz returned the favor by splattering mud across Hal’s shirt. After finishing the float, the two sat together along Colorado Boulevard in the chill of parade day and began dating a week later.

“Our best friends are couples we met in Rose Float and still hang out with,” says Liz.

Three family members stand in front of the 2011 Cal Poly Rose Float "Galactic Expeditions" as it's being decorated

Liz, Michelle and Hal Ahlstrom work together during deco week before the debut of the 2011 float, “Galactic Expedition”

After getting married and starting a family, the Ahlstroms brought their children, Michelle and Brandon, along while visiting San Luis Obispo, attending Rose Parades and reconnecting with other Rose Float alumni. When it came time for Michelle to apply to a university, Cal Poly’s landscape architecture program was the obvious choice.

“The moment that she got accepted, we were over the moon,” Liz remembers. “Then we were more involved in the program than ever.”

Once Michelle joined the program, her parents came back to deco week for the first time in decades, happily putting in late nights when needed. As Michelle took on more leadership roles and encouraged her friends to join the program, she consulted her parents often for advice, though they tried not to be too heavy-handed.

“You want students to learn themselves and make their own float,” says Hal. “We don’t want to tell them how to do it.”

Two adults hold an infant wearing a Cal Poly sweater near a Cal Poly Rose Parade float under construction

Michelle Ahlstrom and Ryan Rickard bring their son, Theo, to see construction of the 2020 float, “Aquatic Aspirations”

In a second-generation meet-cute, Michelle (Landscape Architecture ’12) met her future spouse, Ryan Rickard (Electrical Engineering ’11), while building the “Jungle Cuts” float, though this time no mud was thrown. During deco week, the two were partnered up to adorn the float’s towering giraffes with roses. Michelle was in a leadership role and Rickard, a new participant, shadowed her as an assistant.

“We were observers to this whole relationship,” said Liz. “Ryan would always be following her around — wherever Michelle was working, Ryan was close.”

The two officially started dating the following February and got married in 2017 in San Luis Obispo surrounded by a dozen Rose Float alumni. Now they wait to see if their young children, Theo and Linnea, could be part of the third generation to carry on the Rose Float tradition.