By Gerard Shields
For the first time that anyone can remember, the Philadelphia St. Patrick's Day Parade on Sunday will be without its resident leprechaun, Billy Hare.
The short man with the impish grin yearly donned green sports coat, vest, and shoes while wearing a reddish beard that hooked under his jaw as he walked the parade route, waving like the Notre Dame Fightin' Irish mascot.
Billy grew up five doors from me in the city's Kensington section, serving as the neighborhood Robin Williams. Talk to Billy for 10 minutes and you laughed for nine.
He and I were once repairing donated toys for neighborhood poor kids in the basement of the church rectory. Finished with our task, Bill found a game called "Good Guys, Bad Guys," which he immediately turned into a drinking contest with a six-pack of Schaefer beer.
Land on a bad guy and you had to chug a Dixie cup of beer. Dixie cups were small but, after belting 32 of them, you feel the punch. Billy then decided that it would be a good idea to put a human-sized teddy bear covered in lint in one of the priests' beds.
On our mission impossible, we snuck up stairs with the bear, past the rectory ladies. We tucked it into Father Bond's bed, turned on the TV, and propped it up as if it was watching. I can still here Billy's "tee-hee" laugh as we crept away.
The next morning I worked at the church putting the vestments out for Mass when Father Bond walked in grumbling.
"Some jokers put a filthy teddy bear in my bed," he growled. "I was exhausted but had to stay up cleaning it out."
Then it was me tee-heeing.
Billy had a heart of gold and felt the call to the priesthood. I don't know what happened at the seminary that caused Billy to exit, but I did see the home movie he made mocking the pope with a metal bucket on his head as the mitre and a mop as a staff.
Later, he began bringing a ventriloquist doll that he named Emmitt around with him. The playmate in the tuxedo and clown face sat on his knee. One time when I went to the restroom, I found Billy at the urinal holding Emmitt over the one next to him as I curled up in laughter.
A few years older than us and able to drive, Billy would take us teenagers on trips to restaurants such as Greenwood Dairies outside the city. The gag was always the same. He would start coughing like he was choking on his food to get the attention of the restaurant patrons who would look over to see Billy pulling a string of rainbow papier-mache out of his mouth.
At the old Red Garter club in Wildwood, he was known at the "hat man." He would sit in front of the stage with several trash bags full of hats and wear a different one depending on what song the band played.
Billy donned a hat with an umbrella on top for rain songs, wiggling his vaudeville eyebrows like Charlie Chaplin.
Billy's wonderful, kind, compassionate heart gave out on him in June at 61, silencing the laughter. But great guys like Billy Hare never really pass on. They live in wonderful memories that even the mighty power of time cannot take from us.
So during Sunday's St. Patrick's Day parade, I will think of Billy tucking that bear in the priest's bed, pulling the papier-mache out of his mouth, holding Emmitt, and switching hats.
Gerard Shields is a native of Kensington who now lives in Washington, D.C. firstname.lastname@example.org