Life has taught Mary O’Connell Waller many lessons. Never turn off your phone is the newest one.
At last month’s trustees meeting of the Morris County St. Patrick’s Parade, Waller conscientiously switched off her cell phone. She did not want anyone interrupting the proceedings at Morristown’s Dublin Pub.
Someone on the parade committee then announced he was going to make a call to congratulate the 2020 parade Grand Marshal, discreetly chosen by officials from the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Irish American Association of North West Jersey.
Waller suggested trustees discuss the selection first. No, no, the Long Valley woman was told, it’s a done deal. Everyone sat around, waiting for the mystery Marshal to answer. A busy signal, somebody reported.
“Are you sure you have the right number?” Waller inquired, helpfully.
Long pause. “Mary, turn on your damned phone!”
“Why?” she persisted. “Is my phone the only one that works?”
“No,” came the response. “Because you’re the Grand Marshal!”
Waller is a loquacious lady; her late husband liked to joke that she was vaccinated with a Victrola needle. A booster shot may be in order.
“For the first time in my life, I was speechless,” Waller recounts with a hearty laugh.
There will be speeches galore in the run-up to March 14, 2020, when Waller becomes only the fifth female Grand Marshal of a parade that has grown from a modest affair in Wharton in 1979 to Morris County’s largest St. Patrick’s celebration.
“It’s long overdue,” parade spokesman Michael Leavy said of Waller’s selection.
For a decade, Waller has served as secretary of the parade committee, and as a member of the committee that arranges for entertainment preceding the parade, an annual event that has donated some $350,000 to local charities and contributed more than $250,000 to Morristown for parade expenses.
“Every year she does whatever is needed. She’s always the first one at meetings, and is the last to leave,” Leavy said. “Mary’s contributions to the parade and Irish-American culture epitomizes what’s best about the parade. She’s really a great choice.”
‘LOOK FORWARD, STAY STRONG’
In 1991, the parade moved to Morristown — where George Washington authorized St. Patrick’s Day festivities for his Irish American soldiers during the Revolution.
That history is not lost on Waller, a keen student of all things Irish.
Born in Jersey City in 1938, she has a solid-green pedigree. Her paternal grandparents were born in Tullig, Dingle, Ireland, and Macroon, Cork, Ireland. Her maternal grandparents’ family hails from Drumcliffe, Sligo, Ireland.
Waller says she admires the Irish for their ability to persevere through adversity — a trait she exemplifies.
When she was a girl, she lost her mother to tuberculosis. Waller’s first husband, Kenneth Waller, was stricken with atherosclerosis, which slowly killed him. It fell to her to support their five children.
With help from the Secaucus Fire Department, where her husband had volunteered, Mary Waller landed a job at Secaucus town hall. She studied Public Administration at Hudson County Community College and Jersey City State College, and retired as Chief Legislative Aide for the State of New Jersey in 2001.
When her second husband, John Zaremba, passed away, Waller again had to face hard decisions.
“I thought, ‘Well, what do I want to do? And I thought, ‘Well, I’m Irish.”
Waller threw herself into Irish language courses, and Irish dance lessons. She also plays the bodhran, a loud Irish drum.
She has volunteered for numerous organizations, including the Immaculate Conception School in Secaucus, the Hudson County Association for Retarded Citizens (trustee), the Secaucus Housing Authority (chairperson), the Atlantic Health System’s Newton Medical Center, the Sparta Cancer Center (several roles), and the Irish American Association of North West Jersey (assorted titles).
Setbacks are inevitable over a long life, Waller says. How you bounce back is what separates the men from the boys…and the women from the girls.
“You can’t dwell on the negatives. You have to look forward and stay strong. Because if you fall apart, not only do you fall apart, but your family falls apart as well,” says Waller, who revels in her 12 grandchildren.
She moved from Lake Mohawk to Long Valley to help care for a granddaughter born with a rare heart condition.
“You just make the best choices that you can… you can’t let it destroy you. If you’re going to concentrate on the negatives, you’re going to be lost. With everything that comes your way, you have to accept it.”
What Waller is having trouble accepting is the fact that she will be front and center on the parade reviewing stand in March.
Already, the whirlwind is spinning. Waller will be feted this Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, at the Irish Feis & Festival at Crystal Springs Resort in Vernon, and again on Sept. 15, when she officially is introduced as Grand Marshal at the Half Way to St. Patrick’s Day Party, back at the Dublin Pub.
“I’m not really good at anything. I just take an interest in everything in my adult life,” Waller says modestly. “I’m usually the supporting cast. I’m the stagehand.”
She had best keep her phone turned on this time, with a fully charged battery. Surely, many fans beg to differ, and will be calling to remind her:
Mary O’Connell Waller, you are the star of this show!
Meet the 2020 St. Patrick’s Parade Grand Marshal at the Irish Feis & Festival, Sept. 8, 2019, from 8:30 am to 6 pm at the Minerals Hotel at Crystal Springs Resort in Vernon. Tickets: $15-$20, under 12, free. Call 973-727-5829 or email here for more. On Sept. 15, it’s the Half Way to St. Patrick’s Day Party, from 3 pm to 6 pm at Morristown’s Dublin Pub. Free entertainment by Paddy and the Pale Boys.
MORE ABOUT THE 2020 MORRIS COUNTY ST. PATRICK’S PARADE