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Planning committee keeps Aiken Memorial Day Parade rolling along

May 27, 2019

For about 20 years on the last Saturday in May, thousands of Aiken residents have lined Laurens Street to remember and honor America’s fallen service men and women at the city’s annual Memorial Day Parade.

The parade, with more than 100 entries, including marching bands, floats, horses and antique cars, takes just about an hour to pass by. But 15 dedicated volunteers on the parade planning committee started planning in February and worked throughout the spring to make the parade another success.

“At the preliminary meeting, we mapped out what we needed to do for publicity and logistics, getting people to register and drumming up enthusiasm for the parade, if you will,” said Linda Caldwell, the director for this year’s parade. “Then we met in March to solidify the plans and then in April. Most of it is done by email or phone calls back and forth, and it’s worked. I’m very proud of the work that everyone has done.”

The members of the 2019 parade committee are Brian Wilner, Catherine Bedenbaugh, Dave Twigg, Don Jenkins, Dwight Bradham, Ed Knight, Gail Diggs, Haley Knight, Karen Thompson, Leslie Hull-Ryde, Linda Caldwell, Lowell Koppert, Rita Herrick, Shannon Mayes and Sheila Pate.

The volunteers come from military service organizations, the community and local government, and each one has a different “expertise” he or she brings to the committee, said Caldwell, a U.S. Army nurse veteran who volunteered to serve Vietnam in the late 1960s.

A couple of committee members focus on World War II veterans, making sure they can participate and ride on the trolley in the parade. Others put posters up around town. Another worked on the website.

“Our committee has worked very well together,” Caldwell said. “I appreciate very much what they’ve done and how they pulled together.”

Although Aiken is not a military town, the city is a patriotic and veteran-friendly town and is one of only about three South Carolina cities to hold a Memorial Day parade, Caldwell said.

And while the parade celebrates service and sacrifice, it is a time most importantly to reflect and remember the men and women who were lost.

“We like to use the parade as an opportunity to teach youth that Memorial Day is not the kickoff to summer. We don’t say Happy Memorial Day. It’s not a happy occasion. It’s a sober occasion,” Caldwell said. “We like to think that all the veterans who march in the parade are marching for their buddies and comrades who didn’t make it home.”

Committee member Lowell Koppert, the chairman of the Aiken County Veterans Council and a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran, agreed.

“For me, it isn’t so much about the tradition of the parade,” he said. “To me, it is showing the significance of the sacrifices made by so many for so few on behalf of our country, keeping their memories alive and honoring their service.”

From the very beginning of the country, dating back to the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence, patriots have been willing to risk all for the preservation of our country, Koppert said.

“Our parade provides an event where anyone who wants to can come celebrate these patriots’ legacy, honor their sacrifice and remember why we are a free nation. It also serves as an interactive history lesson for our youth,” he said. “In a day and age where our military is getting smaller and less people have veterans in their families, I hope that the parade will continue to serve as a bridge gap and allow those folks who are less familiar with military service and families to better understand the sacrifices made on their behalf.”

Committee member and Aiken City Councilwoman Gail Diggs was the impetus for saving the parade when it was in jeopardy in 2015.

In February 2015, members of the local Marine Corps League announced they would no longer be able to sponsor the parade, citing the cost and the age of members.

When Diggs heard the parade had been canceled, she wrote a letter to the Aiken Standard expressing her sadness and disappointment but soon turned those emotions into a determination to bring back the parade even bigger and better.

Her brother, Melden Diggs, a Vietnam veteran, had driven her in the parade the year before and volunteered to drive her again that year. She wouldn’t let him down.

“Memorial Day is a time to pay respect to our heroes of the Armed Forces,” said Diggs, who with Jeanne Quattlebaum, was a first lady of this year’s parade. “This parade is our opportunity to honor all who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. We must not forget that freedom isn’t free.

“Aiken is one of the few cities in South Carolina that hosts a Memorial Day parade. Our dedicated committee members are determined to continue this tradition.”

To ensure the tradition continues, the Aiken County Veterans Services Office, currently under the direction of Army veteran Dwight Bradham, has oversight of the parade but has delegated the planning and execution to the Aiken County Veterans Council, chaired by Koppert.

The Veterans Council has formed a parade planning committee made up of council members on a rotational basis, community members and legacy planners, including Diggs.

The council is made up of veterans’ service organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and the Military Officers Association of America, said Caldwell, who is the local association’s immediate past president.

The 2020 Aiken Memorial Day Parade is 12 months away, but Caldwell and the planning committee already are looking ahead.

“Here’s a little teaser,” Caldwell said. “Next year, we hope to do something to extend the parade. We have big plans.”

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