The First St. Patrick’s Day Parade – An interview with David Rucki, founder of the Hackettstown St. Patrick’s Day Parade
HOW DID THE ST. PATRICK’S DAY PARADE GET STARTED?
In December of 2008 shortly after Christmas, while grabbing coffee and a bagel at Harper’s Bagel & Bake Shop, I sat down with Bill Harper to discuss the BID’s event ideas for the next couple months. Winter months are tough for planning events, but we also knew that it was much needed for the business community to have some kind of activity to bring people into town. In previous years, we attempted Mardi Gras events, President’s Day events, along with other special shopping days, but sadly none were generating much of an impact for the business community. Bill and I both looked up at each other and I just blurted out… “What about a St. Patrick’s Day Parade!”
WHAT WAS INSPIRATION BEHIND STARTING A PARADE SPECIFICALLY?
Not really sure how to explain it, but one thing that makes the town of Hackettstown incredibly unique is its ability to come out for a parade. I happen to have a bit of experience on this with my twenty plus years marching with the Colonial Musketeers Fife & Drum Corps. I’ve been to many towns and marched in countless parades… believe me when I tell you, you’d be hard pressed to find a town that consistently lines the streets every year for a parade. For inspiration, you simply had to look at the Hackettstown Memorial Day Parade run by the VFW. When coming up with the idea to bring people to town, it was a no brainer. It’s not a complicated event, it’s easy to promote, and people know exactly what to expect… it’s a parade!
With only two months to plan our first parade, we needed to start immediately. The first call made was to a friend at Rory O’Moore Pipes and Drums. Through my career with the Colonial Musketeers I had become friends with a lot of pipe bands and both our groups worked together on a few events in the past. Matt Wood of Rory O’Moore was a huge supporter and incredible resource for us. We looked over the calendar together and with all the parades in March, we were able to carve out a couple hours late in the afternoon on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day. We got our day… March 15, 2009!! With Matt’s help we made calls to other pipe bands, and with connections with the Musketeers we got ourselves 8 bands that first year!
Next up… how to fund it. We’ve got all these bands that need to get paid. The committee started making calls and our first check came from a future Grand Marshal, Barbara Lewthwaite, President of Centenary College. I remember that phone call quite well. I called, had the whole pitch ready to go, and she literally stopped me midway and said, “A St Patrick’s Day parade!!?? How much you need?” Then came sponsorships from Skylands Community Bank, Hackettstown Ford and even Mars Chocolate North America came through for us.
In a short period of time, we got a date, bands, funds, and approvals. None of this could of happened that first year without our events committee: Mary Litwhiler, Bill Harper, Claudia Conway, Kathy Doherty, Amy Capano, Mae Maloney, Christine LaBadie, Catherine Rust and Maureen Kimble.
WHAT WAS THE ORIGINAL PARADE ROUTE?
The two worst things in a parade is having it too long and having no one in attendance. You never want to have a parade tradition start off on the wrong foot (no pun intended). So the original route was designed to be a little shorter than the Memorial Day Parade, ending at David’s Country Inn instead of the Union Cemetery. It was also the hope that since we had no idea if anyone would come out to watch, we didn’t want to have empty sections along the route. By being on the shorter side, we hoped to have more people filling in along the sidewalks to cheer on the marchers.
WHAT INSPIRED THE INVOLVEMENT OF A GRAND MARSHAL? WHO WAS THE FIRST GRAND MARSHAL?
Whether Bill Harper agrees it or not, he probably should be considered the godfather of the parade. It was his shop after all where the idea was hatched. From day one, his support of the parade was 110%. I do think he might have had doubts being that we only had a couple months to pull this thing off, but if he did have doubts, it never stopped him from supporting and encouraging all of us on the committee.
So a parade needs a Grand Marshal, and fortunately that first year it was an easy choice; Bill Harper! So lets go through the check list… Irish – check! Ok, we’re done, he’s our Grand Marshal!
The Grand Marshals reception came in year two when we realized we wanted to build in a fundraising component to the parade. Many parades do this very thing so that they can generate enough money to help offset the costs of the following year’s parade. We did the same thing with the goal of raising enough money to hire a new band every year.
HOW DID THE PUBLIC RESPOND TO THE PARADE?
All the planning, all the time, all the double checking and triple checking you still never know how an event will come together and for us that first year we kept asking… will anyone even show up? The parade stepped right on time on the corner of Washington & Grand Ave before promptly moving right onto Main St. Groups, bands, dignitaries, all of them filing out and onto the parade route. From my vantage point at the start of the Parade I couldn’t tell who was lining the streets, had anyone come out to see it? As the first groups stepped off, it took about 10-15mins before our first reports came back that people DID show up, and not just a couple, but a TON! I immediately thought those reports were just being polite, but it wasn’t until the committee and I marched out at the end the parade that we got to see for ourselves. The moment we turned onto Main Street we saw the crowds, the cheers, all the people celebrating the parade. Why should we have been worried, why should this have been a surprise… We should have known. This is Hackettstown and they ALWAYS come out for a Parade! The papers the next day quoted Police Chief, Kuntz as saying, “I think this was much bigger than anybody anticipated.”
HACKETTSTOWN HAS A SISTER-TOWN IN IRELAND. HOW WAS THAT CONNECTION CREATED?
Early in the planning, while working with the Hackettstown Fire Department it was brought to our attention that years prior, the fire department had found out there was another Hackettstown in the world… minus one “t.” It was located in County Carlow, Ireland. They took it upon themselves to write Hacketstown a letter inviting their Fire Company to come over for a parade they were having. The man who opened that letter in Ireland was Joe Barnes, a member of their Fire Brigade. The relationship started and has only been fostered by both the Hackettstown Fire Department and the Hackettstown St Patrick’s Day Parade ever since.
Knowing that there was a connection to Hacketstown Ireland, I had thought it would be great to see if we could explore the idea of inviting them over for our first parade. One night while working late on planning for the Parade, I figured I’d search Facebook for people who lived in Hacketstown Ireland. Sure enough I found a few people and I sent them all messages to explain what we were doing and to gauge interest in who might be able to come over. I got a couple replies including one from Joe Barne’s daughter. What luck! About 5 people from Hacketstown Ireland, including Joe Barnes came over that year and participated in our parade. Local families hosted each guest in their own homes for the weekend. It was a great community effort!
ARE THERE ANY OTHER NOTABLE PARADE FACTS OR MEMORIES YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE?
“Green Mile”… or “Operation Green Mile” was what we called the late night laying of the green line down Main Street the night before the parade. It’s a tradition that many other towns have, but because our Main Street is also a state highway it’s a bit more challenging to just put down a green line. It couldn’t be permanent, painted, or wider than the middle of the double yellow lines and we needed permitting, approvals, and supervision. Doing some research we found special tape that would stick to anything that we could lay down and immediately pull back up once the parade was over. Only problem, it’s a state road and no one wanted to get run over by any cars. When you need help for the parade… ask the fire department. (Why did we ask the fire department? Interesting side note, the origins of the first green mile down Main Street decades ago, comes from a former fire chief John Bennett, but that’s a story for another day) So with flashing lights in the wee hours of the morning we laid down the green mile. I believe that tradition has continued.