August 31, 2013

With parade, Newtown reflects 'how we're healing'

By CHRISTOPHER SULLIVAN, The Associated Press

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Ten thousand decisions go into creating a big, boisterous parade. No one knows that better than Robin Buchanan, who for years has juggled the lineup at the Labor Day parade that has jubilantly closed out every Newtown summer for more than five decades.

click image to enlarge

This Aug. 14, 2013, photo shows seven members of the Labor Day Parade Committee in Newtown, Conn. Seated from left are Tom D'Agostino, Robin Buchanan, Beth Caldwell and Dan Cruson. Standing from left are Brian Amey, Ellie Whalen and Stacey Olszewski. Caldwell, the head of the committee, believes they had found the right balance between respectful remembrance of the December shooting and celebration at the annual end-of-the-summer event that comes nearly nine months after shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School left 26 dead, 20 of them children.

AP

But never before had this happened: Calls and emails from regulars, folks who always marched, concerned about the most basic decision of all.

"Are you going to have a parade," they asked her, "this year?"

This year.

Meaning: After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, after the eulogies for 20 first-graders and six educators, amid the drumbeat of news stories across the country and hushed conversations around town, all adding up – still – to incomprehension.

A parade, this year?

On an icy evening back in January, barely a month after the shootings, a small group met with sad hugs to confront that question.

It's always been a daunting task for the Labor Day Parade Committee to map out the two-hour extravaganza – to arrange the vintage warplane flyovers or get the stagecoach that's pulled by four matched horses or the ballfield-size American flag, or whatever, to make sure of security and to hash out ways to pay the bills.

But this time, the committee members – two of whom serve out of devotion even though they're divorced from each other – sat hollow-eyed under the fluorescent lights of a bank conference room. Outside, handmade memorials still fluttered on lampposts. The funerals were still raw memories.

How could you focus on a parade? Who would be the grand marshal, a happy honor normally but surely a heavy burden this time around? What would the theme be? Could it be anything but a memorial? But if so, what kind of parade is that?

"How's everybody doing?" someone asked. There were tears as they went around the table, answering. It's a tight group, and this was the first time they'd been together since "the incident."

Yet they knew that planning a parade is a long process. And they sensed that, somehow, this year it could be one piece of the enormous task facing the shattered town and many beyond it, of finding ways to move forward through grief.

So they got going, staying on the mundane issues of assigning duties and making preliminary decisions.

"I think we're all kind of nervous about how we proceed," said Beth Caldwell, the head of the committee, a petite, hard-charging real estate agent by day. Through the months ahead, she would work to maintain a delicate balance – "respectful of what has happened and still offering an avenue of celebration." Often she'd be the one, when discussions turned somber, who injected a laugh or a cold dose of let's-keep-moving reality.

"We can say what we want to happen," she said, assessing the job ahead, "but the parade kind of takes on a life of its own."

PARADE HAS TRADITION

Newtown's parade has been a fixture since 4,000 spectators turned out for the first step-off on Sept. 3, 1962. It often falls on a glorious Indian summer day, but even in drizzle, people come out – to see their neighbors march, to catch the veterans' color guard or the cartwheeling gymnastics team, or just to laugh at parade nonsense, like the grand marshal who once showed up in a gorilla suit and roller-skated the whole route.

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