AP NEWS

Canceling Stamford Memorial parade draws flak

May 10, 2019

STAMFORD - News that Stamford is canceling the Memorial Day parade, substituting with a 5K run at Cummings Beach, drew a barrage of outrage online.

“Nice. Let them run with a 75-pound backpack and a rifle,” one commenter wrote.

“Who’s idea is that?” wrote another.

“We’re having a race at the beach? Try racing onto a beach while being shot at,” another wrote.

“What a disgrace!” was a common comment.

“The true meaning of Memorial Day seems to have been lost,” someone lamented.

But members of the Stamford Veterans’ Council, which includes representatives of the Catholic War Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Marine Corps League, Jewish War Veterans, American Legion, and Disabled American Veterans, are making the best of it.

They disagree with the move, council Commander Steve Fischer said, but they will work with the city to see that the 5K run succeeds.

“We are trying to get as many members out as possible to support it,” Fischer said Thursday. “One of the problems we’re hitting is that the city moved the date from Sunday, Stamford’s traditional parade day, to Monday, the holiday, when a lot of our veterans go to Darien and New Canaan to support veterans’ organizations in those parades.”

Fischer said he doesn’t know when the city’s Patriotic and Special Events Commission, which by ordinance must make arrangements for “appropriate observance” of Memorial Day, Veterans Day and other national holidays, decided to cancel the parade.

City officials have said it was an effort to revitalize participation in Memorial Day with a 5K run to attract younger veterans, because parade attendance has been dropping for years.

“The first inkling we got was in March, when we sent a letter to the commission saying we would prefer keeping the parade,” Fischer said. “I invited them to two Veterans’ Council meetings and got no response. It may boil down to a communication problem.”

He met with Mayor David Martin Wednesday to come up with changes for the 5K so it better includes veterans, Fischer said. Now veterans will hand out medals to the winning runners, and will be given special ball caps to wear to march to their seats for a ceremony that will follow the race, Fischer said.

“We would have hoped they would have listened more to veterans’ desires, but what’s done is done,” he said. “We want to keep a dialogue going with the city” for the Veterans Day parade in November.

Fallout in the fall

The cancellation appears to have its roots in last year’s Veterans Day parade.

Pat Battinelli, who served stateside during the Korean War and headed the Patriotic and Special Events Commission for 40 years, said he and the other three members quit last fall because they “got no cooperation” from Martin.

“He was not coming to us with any information about the Veterans Day parade; he was giving it to whoever he wanted. It was like it was a secret,” Battinelli said. “I did parades under five mayors. It was never like this. Finally Martin said he wanted to make changes, so I said, ‘Do what you have to do.’”

Taylor Gray, a special assistant to Martin, said members of the commission quit just before the Veterans Day parade, so Martin ordered members of his cabinet to organize it, which they did with help from the Downtown Special Services District.

“We’d been receiving complaints, including from members of the Veterans’ Council, about how the commission was run,” Gray said. “They resigned before we could let those complaints be known.”

Ideas lost

Whatever the reason, the outcome has many city veterans dismayed.

Scott Vanderheyden, who served in Desert Storm, said he thinks few veterans will attend the 5K event.

“I would think the city would have gotten together with veterans’ organizations and talked this through,” Vanderheyden said. “If they had consulted with us, maybe we could have come up with an event more geared to the holiday. Maybe it would work if the run raised money for a veteran’s family in need. But they didn’t have that idea because they didn’t consult with enough veterans.”

In some countries in Europe “where there are American graves from World War II, the people have a procession to the cemetery to lay flowers,” Vanderheyden said. “Generations later they are taking care of the U.S. war dead who liberated them from the Germans. We don’t do that.”

But it’s what the founder of Memorial Day, Gen. John Logan, had in mind when, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he called for a national day of remembrance in 1868, just after the Civil War ended.

“A parade is the wrong idea to begin with,” said Jimmy Sparrow, who saw action in Vietnam. “According to Gen. Logan’s orders, there’s supposed to be a solemn procession to the cemetery. That’s what the day should be.”

Still, he said, a parade is important to people because it is Stamford’s tradition, Sparrow said. Stamford Advocate archives document Memorial Day parades as far back as 1892.

Poor publicity

“There were big gaps between spectators along the parade route. That’s true,” Sparrow said. “But there was a complaint for years that there was never a big leadup to the parade to inform the public it was happening.”

Fischer agreed.

“If you don’t advertise it or promote it, you’re not going to get turnout,” Fischer said.

City Rep. John Zelinsky Jr., D-11, said the same.

“I think the city did not do enough to let people know about the parade,” said Zelinsky, who is seeking to put a parade discussion on the Board of Representatives’ June agenda.

Remember a hero

Bud Spann, who will turn 89 on the 4th of July, enlisted in the Army at 19 and served in the Korean War as a heavy-equipment mechanic. A parade “may be a custom of the past,” Spann said, but “there has to be some type of formal ceremony” for the war dead.

“When I joined the Army in 1949, the sergeant in charge of enlistment in Stamford was Homer Lee Wise,” Spann said. “I didn’t know it when I was busy signing papers, but some months later I learned he was a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor,” a World War II hero.

“I think there should be Memorial Day ceremonies where people tell stories about the ones who served,” Spann said. “How many people in Stamford know about Homer Lee Wise?”

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.