Bridesburg parade highlights Memorial Day celebrations

Memorial Day
People watch veterans march past during a Memorial Day parade Monday, May 30, 2011, in the Bridesburg neighborhood of Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Under the sweltering heat, with sweat beading on Mayor Nutter's forehead within minutes of its official 10 a.m. start, the Bridesburg Memorial Day Parade went off without a hitch Monday.

That was no small feat, considering that only six months ago, the parade was on "the endangered list," according to its organizers, as a lack of funds threatened to break the 32-year tradition.

But by sheer will, Bridesburg celebrated in full grandeur Monday, as did the city, to honor the fallen who served this country.

Other events included the Korean War Memorial Service at Second and Dock Streets, the Vietnam War Memorial Service at Front and Spruce Streets, and the Port Richmond Memorial Day Parade. A wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Washington Square rounded out the day's activities.

Even the Center City District got into the spirit by casting patriotic hues of red, white, and blue on a dozen historical buildings along the Avenue of the Arts. Across town, Cira Centre glowed Monday night in Old Glory's colors, while the Peco Building displayed "Happy Memorial Day" on its message board. And the Ben Franklin Bridge made the water below it twinkle with Stars-and-Stripes hues.

But Bridesburg's tumult over its Memorial Day Parade was yet another sign of the languishing economy's impact, as even neighborhood parades were getting axed. This year, the neighborhood of Somerton went without a Memorial Day Parade due to a lack of funds.

Bridesburg residents, several of whom were interviewed while they took in Monday's parade - the fruit of their labor - said they pulled out all the stops, including holding a 5K run, a walk, a beef-and-beer dinner, a horseshoe tournament, and raffles. They asked local businesses for contributions and went door-to-door for donations to raise the needed $17,000 to compensate the bands and feed the scouts and military and American Legion members who were to march in the parade.

"We had to have it," said Gary Roman, one of the organizers, as the two-hour parade neared its finale Monday under a stream of confetti in front of the grandstand at Richmond and Orthodox. "It's about tradition, community, and honoring the veterans who couldn't be here today.

"This is all they have."

And Bridesburg gave all of its support, as residents began lining the 1.9-mile parade route before 9 a.m., and before the temperature soared into the mid-80s. Several dozen families with strollers and lawn chairs dotted Bridge, Orthodox and Thompson Streets.

American flags of all shapes and sizes were waved by parade participants and bystanders, including John Zazulak, 9, who sat on the curb to watch the festivities.

John said his older sister, Savannah, 11, was one of the Celtic Flame School Irish Dancers, who performed for the crowd.

"She was good," said John, beaming as he sat next to his grandmother, Darlene Olexa, 71, who was in a wheelchair. Although they live in Frankford, family members said, they make the five-minute drive every year to watch the Bridesburg parade.

The most stirring moment came midway during the parade, when 90-year-old veteran Edward Dubeck, the parade's chief marshal, was singled out. His granddaughter Nicole Dubeck, 37, who is serving in Kabul, Afghanistan, as a Navy corpsman, wrote to parade organizers on why her grandfather should be honored.

The elder Dubeck, who served in the Marines and uses a wheelchair, was overcome with emotion and wept as he was presented with an American flag that flew over a Marine base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Nutter posed for a photograph with him.

"Thank you for everything," Nutter said as he leaned over and shook Dubeck's hand.

The mayor later told the crowd: "This is one of the premier parades in the city. I appreciate your dedication and persistence to honor our men in uniform."

Nutter, who by 11 a.m. was dripping sweat from his forehead, said the Bridesburg parade "really comes down to the heart and soul of Philadelphia."

The mayor then headed to the Korean War (11 a.m. to noon) and Vietnam War (12:30 to 1:30 p.m.) services.

The two-hour Bridesburg parade featured more than a dozen legion and military units and 10 marching bands, including the Cinnaminson High School Marching Band, which performed "God Bless America." Others, such as the Joseph A. Ferko String Band, the Aqua String Band, and the Irish Thunder Pipes and Drums, each got rousing applause with their version of the song.

The Celtic music of Irish Thunder really got to Barbara Westfield, 62, who lives on Orthodox Street, as the band passed her, performing "You're A Grand Old Flag."

She said she became a widow 10 years ago, when her husband - a Marine who served in the Vietnam War - passed away. Her son, who has since left the military, served in Desert Storm with the Navy.

"They need to know we care," said Westfield, who participated in several of the fund-raising events to save this year's Memorial Day Parade.

Roman said the parade ended on a high note.

"We're good for next year," he said, as far as money. "We have a little carryover.

"We're hoping it will be an even bigger parade next year."

 


Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.