It was the type of idea that shouldn’t have survived the morning light.
Sure, the idea of creating a Lawrence St. Patrick’s Day Parade sounded great when everybody was sitting around a little cocktail table passing the night away. But as the sun rose, surely the energy for the idea would empty quicker than the bottles did the night before.
“I think there were some people who went home from that night and said, ‘Can you believe what we’re going to do?’” said Barbara Herbel, a longtime member of the Lawrence St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee.
Back in that magical year of 1988, though, they did it. Snowflakes as big as dinner plates, and a Lawrence couple who got married on a float, are still among the top memories mentioned from that first St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
It started at The Flamingo Club — yes, the club full of exotic dancers in North Lawrence. Club owner Wes Kabler — Uncle Wesley, as committee members call him — may not be the father of this parade, but he certainly was in the room when it was born. Kabler had begun hanging around with a pair of ABC cameramen who — shock of shocks — once found themselves at the Flamingo Club while in Lawrence to cover a KU sporting event. One of the camera men was an honest-to-goodness New York Irishman who had a mouth that, when it wasn’t wrapped around a cocktail glass, was giving Kabler a hard time about how Lawrence didn’t do anything to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
“After a couple of years of pestering, he finally got me,” Kabler said.
The parade ended at the Jet Lag Lounge where, legend has it, Kabler, Jet Lag owner Mike Jones and a handful of other friends had sat around a cocktail table just a couple weeks before St. Patrick’s Day and drawn up the plans for the first parade. Back then, the parade wasn’t allowed anywhere near Massachusetts Street, instead taking a zigzag route that went through parts of Old West Lawrence.
Parade No. 1 attracted about 25 floats and a lot of odd stares. Committee members remember there wasn’t much love for the event in that first year.
“They just called us a bunch of drunks, and I guess they weren’t too far off,” Herbel said. “We started at a bar and we ended at a bar, and we had all our meetings at a bar. We didn’t do a very good job of hiding the fact we liked beer.”
But one group liked the parade well enough” The March of Dimes. Organizers somehow ended up with $1,000 left over after the first parade. The group gave the money to the Lawrence Police Department for its help with the parade route. The Police Department instead said the money should go to the March of Dimes. The “good-time crowd” had just helped some local kids, and they decided that felt pretty good.
Now, 25 parades later, the Lawrence St. Patrick’s Day Committee has raised more than $700,000 for local charities, most of them directly helping children. For that, and also for their spirit, the Lawrence St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee has been chosen by the Journal-World as the winner of the second annual Larry Award.
“This parade has provided a huge shot in the arm for an awful lot of charities in this town, especially during times like these when fundraising is really hard to come by,” said Dan Affalter, a retired police officer who now serves on the board of Headquarters Counseling Center.
Affalter, who nominated the committee for the Only in Lawrence Award, estimated that about $10,000 of Headquarters’ $225,000 budget will come directly from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee.
“I can tell you, it is much more than just a parade to us,” Affalter said.
Now, it has come to this.
“There are only two things stopping me from cleaning your clock,” Gene Shaughnessy says to the stout fellow standing across from him. “Fear and pain.”
Shaughnessy, co-chair of the 2012 parade committee, is trying to hand out golf carts. You’d be surprised at how many golf carts it takes to run a parade. On this Saturday morning, about 7 a.m. on the day of the parade, there are 32 golf carts and 10 of the heavy-duty “Gator” vehicles parked outside the Flamingo Club. There are about 60 parade volunteers who want their golf cart, and they all want them at once. And they’re all giving Shaughnessy a hard time about it.
But first Shaughnessy has to make sure each volunteer has a green vest and blue wrist band. The vests are a necessity for safety, as volunteers will be out in the city streets placing barricades and giving instructions to parade participants. The blue wristband technically isn’t a necessity, but you’d better have one if you want to partake in the after-parade keg. It becomes obvious that more people would rather leave without a green vest than a blue wristband.
Today is the culmination of basically a year’s worth of work. The St. Patrick’s Day Committee holds nearly a dozen fundraisers, everything from the Shamrock Shuffle to “Irish street bowling,” to raise money for its charities and to cover basic parade expenses.
But today is showtime, so to speak. About 40 hand-held radios are being handed out to key volunteers. A very serious man is running around with the title “logistics” taped to his vest. A less serious woman is running around passing out headbands with antennae that have little Irish top hats attached to them. Apparently, reporters are required to wear the antennas.
Shaughnessy has been up since 4 this morning. Couldn’t sleep. But no one is cutting him a break right now.
“Do you know how long it is going to take me to get to 17th and Mass. on a golf cart?” asks one man who clearly is hoping to talk Shaughnessy into giving him one of the high-powered Gators.
“I’ve got a solution for you,” Shaughnessy says. “Come back next year and get started a day earlier.”
Then Shaughnessy gives a general assessment.
“We’ve been doing this for 25 years, and one of these years, we’re going to get it figured out,” he says. “But it might not be this year.”
After a complimentary breakfast from the folks at Buffalo Wild Wings, a handful of committee members go to the nearby Red Lyon Tavern for a pre-parade tradition. Let’s just say they consulted an old Irish sage named Jameson.
At the bar is Alan Johnson. He and his wife, Terri Wilson, were the couple who got married on the float in the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade. That would make this his 24th wedding anniversary.
“It’s still working, isn’t it?” Shaughnessy asks him.
“I’m going to go home soon,” he says “and find out.”
The hours leading up to the 1 p.m. parade include a lot of troubleshooting. Getting people to where they need to be and when they need to be there. But it also gives time for some memories to bubble up. Like when the dolphin floated down the Kansas River. The Indianapolis Zoo brought a helium-filled dolphin balloon to the parade once. It didn’t survive a wind gust on the Kansas River bridge. Or the year when Shaughnessy spent the whole post-parade party in a tuxedo and bare feet at the Flamingo because he decided to walk the entire parade route in rented dress shoes. Or when … well, some stories are probably best left in the dark with the leprechauns.
And then there are the people. If you want to meet a bunch of people, throw a parade. Shaughnessy can’t count all the people he has met through the parade. But several hundred faces are familiar to him as he drives through the downtown on his Gator.
It is 9:30 in the morning, and already people are sitting in pickup beds along Massachusetts Street, green horses are grazing in South Park, and the parade route is edged with a white chalk line that soon will be filled with kids eager to fill their own Irish pots with something better than gold: candy.
Shaughnessy, one of 10 from a Irish family that saw both the mother and father die before Shaughnessy turned 10, takes it all in. He seemingly waves at every child along the route.
“It is a hell of a deal,” he says out of the blue. “It really is.”
This is about the point where Mike Lohmann warned the day would start to stick in your throat a bit.
First, it is odd to just stand in the middle of Massachusetts Street. Up ahead is 11th and Mass., and beyond that is a crowd estimated at about 20,000 people. From here, Massachusetts Street looks like a ribbon in the wind: colorful, full of movement, mesmerizing for a moment.
“I know it sounds corny,” Lohmann says. “But my favorite memory is being there at 11th and Mass. and seeing the parade stretch out in front of you, and know that you were part of it.”
There are a handful on the St. Patrick’s Day committee, which numbers about 100 people, who have been a part of all 25. There is not really a list of those names, because this group isn’t about making lists that separate people. They’re much more about bringing folks together.
Herbel knows there are probably a few folks who still turn up their noses that the parade ends at a gentlemen’s club or at the rambunctiousness at some of the group’s fundraisers. But she and other committee members don’t make any apologies because they know that there is a reason this event has survived to its 25th edition.
“We like to have a good time, and friendship is an awful big part of this equation,” Herbel said.
Don’t believe her? Just look at the 90-year-old man dancing in the middle of Massachusetts Street. He’s an old friend. That’s Bill Sullivan, the New York Irishman who finally got Wes Kabler’s goat one year. He’s been back for almost all of these. He’s dancing a little jig right now because … well, it’s St. Patrick’s Day.
When this day is done, the Lawrence St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee will have raised $60,000 for six charitable organizations. But they’ll also make another donation to the community, a commodity that a little cocktail committee had in mind from the very beginning: fun.
“Look around,” Shaughnessy said. “There aren’t many upset people on St. Patrick’s Day.”