August 31, 2013

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


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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.


"I think they should be able to shoot their guns," said Andy Cluff, the treasurer, and Caldwell's ex-husband.

"I really think that's going to be an issue, the guns," Caldwell said.

Others joined in, but there was no decision. They'd take it up later.


At nearly 60 square miles, Newtown is spread out, and over time five volunteer fire companies have formed. They typically lead the parade's five divisions, one by one, each accompanied by a marching band.

In the past, there's been head-butting between the chiefs and the parade committee about limiting the number of big trucks, about parade judging and other prickly issues.

At the committee's March meeting, fire company representatives sat with arms crossed. Everyone knew what they'd done in December; Sandy Hook's firehouse, near the school, was where parents came that day, where they got the news.

"12/14 changed us all," Caldwell told the chiefs, who had never met with the committee before. "I'm sorry it's taken so long to get you here."

The parade planners explained they expected more entries this year and had to think of ways to control the event's size. Maybe limit each fire company to three pieces of equipment? That idea was batted down quickly, and a chilly discussion followed.

Drop some out-of-town groups, someone suggested gruffly.

"Get rid of the politicians," Rob Manna, the fire commission chairman, offered – to welcome laughter.

Kym Stendahl, a former parade committee leader, spoke up, beginning, "I have a friend who lost a daughter..."

As she tried to articulate parade-goers' thoughts on seeing the firefighters this year, her voice caught: "To look these guys in the face and say – no, I can't say I know what you went through, but – to look you in the face and say, 'Thank you.'"

The discussion softened. In the midst of talk about costs, including the major outlay, hiring bands, Joe Farrell of the Hawleyville area department broke in.

"We'll donate $500," he said. Treasurer Cluff wrote the number down.

"Just not a kazoo band in front of us," Farrell added, smiling.

"We won't put the belly dancers in front of you either," joked committee member Tom D'Agostino, who works at the bank.

There were several proposals for arranging the fire companies – even a plan for them all to form a single, dramatic opening unit, which was agreed on for a while. In the end, they settled on the old one-per-division lead roles.

One more decision: A group of eight people would be chosen – one each from the fire companies, police department, EMS service and search-and-rescue team – to carry a banner saying, "Newtown's First Responders."

Unanimous nods this time. "I like it a lot," one chief said.

After the American flag, it would be the first real unit of a distinctive parade, now taking shape.


"Crazy stuff going on in the world... I don't know about you but I'm having a hard time sleeping."

Caldwell's bleak email came a day after the Boston Marathon bombing – and a day before April's planning meeting for the parade. Concerns about security, always a priority, rose a nervous notch (and rose another one a month later after a shooting in New Orleans that left 19 wounded – at a parade).

A police department liaison promised to advise the committee of any perceived threats, and Caldwell noted that the school shootings had given the local police "a direct pipeline with a lot of agencies."

(Continued on page 4)

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