Marine restores pride of Memorial Day parade on streets of Lawrenceville
Two years in Iraq, a lot of close calls and a 25-year Marine Corps career led combat veteran Jim McGinley to a deal with God.
When he got home, McGinley vowed, he would care for and honor other veterans as they returned from duty.
In the past eight years, he has helped reinvigorate the once-languishing Memorial Day Parade in Lawrenceville and made it one of the biggest in Western Pennsylvania. Organizers expect more than 60 groups and at least 700 marchers on Monday for the parade's 105th year, up from an estimated 200 marchers when McGinley returned from Iraq in 2005.
“This'll probably be the best parade Lawrenceville has seen in over 20 years,” said McGinley, 49, who became an organizer in 2006 because the 2005 parade disappointed him. “We had to keep this thing going, revive it and make it a parade people will be proud of.”
Civil War veterans were the first organizers of the Lawrenceville parade, listed among the oldest Memorial Day celebrations in the country. Participation surged through the 1940s and into the early 1960s as World War II veterans and their families honored fallen military men and women, said longtime spectator James Wudarczyk, 60.
“These men were still relatively young, and they were very proud of having served their country,” he said.
Enthusiasm for the parade slipped from the 1980s and into the early 2000s, when the World War II generation reached old age and Lawrenceville declined. By 2005, spectators roughly matched the number of marchers.
Now a neighborhood renaissance and resurgent awareness of veterans has re-energized the holiday, steadily rebuilding a tradition. Several thousand people could line Butler Street to watch on Monday.
“It's not just a parade. It's not just a holiday. It's a way to honor these people,” said Susan McGrane, 50, secretary of the St. Mary's and Allegheny Cemetery Association, which manages the parade.
McGrane helps orchestrate the occasion in part to honor her brother, the late Navy veteran and former association President Robert McGrane Sr. Since his death two years ago, McGrane has steadied the parade's finances through a printed program guide that tops 70 pages this spring. Low-priced advertisements in the program, private donations, a spaghetti dinner and other fundraisers cover the bulk of annual parade expenses that can reach $7,500.
The event receives no public money and is not supported by the city, though it once received state grant money. Organizers said grass-roots generosity is just one element of what has become a community-wide push, with Boy Scouts and other residents planting flags in Allegheny Cemetery a few days beforehand.
“A lot of people are just too old to march. We have to get younger people involved,” said Dale Collins, 63, a Vietnam War veteran whose brother died in the war.
As commander of VFW Post No. 214 in Lawrenceville, Collins said he and other parade leaders know spectators who want to hear military speakers recount their experiences.
Those speakers will take center stage in Allegheny Cemetery immediately after the parade. Scheduled to begin about 10 a.m. at 40th and Butler streets, the hourlong parade will cover seven blocks up Butler Street to a cemetery entrance near 47th Street.
There, several hundred people assemble near more than 10,000 veterans' grave sites for a solemn service at the Soldiers Memorial. A bagpipe performance of “Amazing Grace,” a 21-gun salute by Civil War re-enactors, and a military flyover by a World War II-era plane accompany the speeches, followed by a free picnic.
Other support comes from American Legion and VFW members, including those at Post No. 3945 in Morningside, McGinley said. He said the parade should add 20 groups in 2014, building on “the pride and the patriotism from the Lawrenceville residents.”
Ten men in his platoon in Iraq won Purple Hearts, an honor given to soldiers wounded in action.
“You don't forget those guys,” McGinley said. “I'm glad to be back.”
Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or email@example.com.