By Peggy Carroll
Steve Welsh remembers well that first Memorial Day parade in Morris Plains back in 1987.
Spectators were few and far between. “Nearly everybody at the parade was in the parade,” he said.
And even then, only a few units were in the line of march. From beginning to end, the parade took “maybe 15-20 minutes,” he said.
This year, as the marchers line up for the 30th anniversary parade on Saturday, May 28, 2016, there will be more than 90 units, including popular marching bands, the National Guard, local and county organizations and some kid-friendly performers. And with luck, there could by a fly-over by the 119th Fighter Squadron.
It has become the largest Memorial Day parade in Morris County and it now takes, Welsh said, “an hour and a half or so” from start to finish.
And, if the last few years are an indication, a crowd of 2,000 will line the streets to watch it go by and share in both the solemn memorial services of the day and the old-fashioned community celebration that follows.
It will be a great day for long-time Morris Plains residents Barbara and Dave Visscher, who are Grand Marshals this year.
Barbara is being recognized for her many years of teaching in the school district, and Dave is being honored for his volunteer service as recreation- and shade tree commissioner, Memorial Day parade committee member for all three decades, and years of service to the Salaam Shrine Temple.
It will be a great day, too, for Mayor Frank Druetzler who initiated the parade the same year he was elected mayor – yes, he has been mayor for almost 30 years – and is an active participant.
He marches every year, suited up as Uncle Sam, a tradition born in the parade’s third year. It is a costume he has worn so often, he laughs, that he finally bought it.
Mayor Frank and Uncle Sam
Morris Plains schoolkids can be forgiven if they mistake Uncle Sam for Mayor Frank.
“As a kid, I always liked Uncle Sam and just wanted to dress up like him,” Morris Plains Mayor Frank Druetzler explained.
For the third annual Morris Plains Memorial Day Parade, he worked up the nerve to rent a costume. “I didn’t tell anyone. I figured if I did, they would talk me out of doing it.”
Druetzler marched in red, white and blue that year. “I figured I had gotten it out of my system,” he said. But he was a hit, and parade organizers insisted he reprise the role. Eventually, he bought the outfit.
“The rentals were killing me,” the Mayor said.
And yes, he still fits into the getup.
“I took out the the vest, in the back,” he said, adding with grin: “But I took it back in again.”
— Kevin Coughlin
And it will be another great year for Welsh, who was a co-chair for the first parade and has been chairman for years. He is, he says with a straight face, “apparently chairman for life,” and has shepherded the event through thick and thin — and even a bear and an upset horse or two.
Druetzler, who previously had served six years on the Council, had two reasons for wanting a parade.
First, he said, few people were turning out for the Memorial Day services — the real reason for the holiday. And there were few young people among those who attended. A parade, he thought, would attract larger audiences, including youngsters.
And second, he had grown up in Whippany and marched in parades as a Boy Scout. Morris Plains had nothing of that kind.
“Every small town in America should have a parade,” he said.
Morris Plains population is given at 5,739 people.
To get the parade off the ground, he chose people who had some experience with parades.
Welsh was one of the three leaders.
Welsh had been elected to the Borough Council in 1977, when he was only 25, but had left after two terms. In 1987, he was relatively free. “So I said yes,” he said.
The organizers didn’t have much time to plan – from January when Druetzler took office until the end of May. But they set down some basics that they have followed.
For example, there is a fire department marching – but only one, the one that belongs to Morris Plains. And they’ve always had bands; there were a couple in that 1987 march.
Welsh continued to work with the parade even though he returned to the Council. He stepped down in 2009 after a total of 27 ½ years in office– the longest serving council member in the borough’s history.
Some things have changed in three decades of the parade. Welsh works with a committee of 16 who each have assignments and make the parade go smoothly. There is also an ad book which along with a contribution from the Borough pays the parade bills. And in recent years, the parade has been recorded; there is a disc for each year.
But there are some things even the best-laid plans can’t cover.
In 2008, a bear ran through the borough as the parade was ending. A year after, two 1,800-lb. Clydesdales were spooked and ran amok in a parking lot, tipping the carriage they were pulling and injuring the driver.
That same year, a low-flying Coast Guard helicopter that was part of the parade hit a tree and caused two eight-foot branches to break and fall, striking a five-year old girl and a woman and her son.
Soldiers, Bands and Maybe a Jet
This year, hopefully, the focus will be the parade’s attractions.
- 13 bands, including the Hawthorne Caballeros Alumni and the Orange High School Marching Tornadoes Band.
- The National Guard 3rd Battalion 112th Field Artillery from Morristown
- Future Marines of RSS Northwest
- A flyover, perhaps of an F-16 jet with the 119th Fighter Squadron. An invitation has been extended, Welsh said, but the appearance and time, at this writing, has not been confirmed.
- For children: Teddy Grahams and Friends from Mondelez, Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig.
The Day and the Route
Memorial Day observances will begin at 9 a.m. with a service at Robert’s Garden at the corner of Glenbrook Road and Mountain Way. The traditional memorial services will be conducted by the members of the Morris Plains VFW Watnong Post 3301 and the Denville American Legion Post 390. Assemblyman Jay Webber of Morris Pains will be the speaker.
The parade kicks off at 9:30 a.m., near the intersection of Glenbrook and Mountain Way, travels south on Mountain Way, east on Rosedale Avenue, then north along Speedwell Avenue and past the reviewing stand at the corner of Franklin Place, opposite the railroad station, and north up Littleton Road to Rte. 53. It ends at the VFW Post.
And at the end, there’s old-fashioned picnic fare at the VFW– hot dogs and beverages for everyone and candy for the kids.
For this community event, there are no make-ups and no do-overs.
Fingers crossed, the organizers are hoping it doesn’t rain on their parade..
In case of bad weather, check www.morrisplainsboro.org for a message before 6:30 a.m.
THE MORRIS PLAINS PARADE THEN… early images courtesy of Laurie Fu, and the Morris Plains Museum:
…AND NOW, recent parades photographed by Morristown Green contributors: