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.


The group moved on to other, less harrowing business. Parade attractions were firming up: Sikorsky would be sending a helicopter. Wells Fargo would send its stagecoach.

Buchanan, organizing the lineup, mentioned receiving emails from people identifying themselves as representatives of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, about participating. Already jittery and imagining an even bigger crowd, the committee asked her to "politely decline." Only later did Buchanan learn the emails were spoofs sent by a friend.

An item of old business demanded attention – and Caldwell brought it up with unusual bluntness.

"There will be no firing of anything" by re-enactors at the parade, she said.

In the discussion, Cluff dissented. Cruson had said previously the re-enactors would go along if asked. Caldwell agreed: "They'll understand."

A few days later, she was still thinking about her decision. "I don't normally step in and say no," she said.

Many factors went into it, including past complaints and some recent emailed worries, but also a personal experience. "I was at 'Les Miserables' in New Haven," she said, "and really, the gunshots in the musical, that was unsettling to me – and I don't think people should be subjected to that."

Not this year.


The May and June parade meetings – the latter held on the bank patio on a balmy night – covered lots of ground, but raising funds was prominent. With lists of all local businesses, committee members divided up contacts.

"I'll do the banks," offered Ellie Whalen, retired from a Wall Street career. She always brought cookies or brownies to the meetings, and her generosity became a gag.

Once, someone asked what companies receive in return for a certain level of sponsorship, and the answer came back: website mentions, grandstand space ...

"And a drink at Ellie's," added committee member Stacey Olszewski, an artist also helping organize the local arts festival.

Through the summer, while some of the parade volunteers pressed businesses for donations or ads, others worked on logistics, and Buchanan rejuggled the growing lineup.

"You can't have the alpacas near the dogs, and no flatbeds ahead of a nursery school, 'cause they'll be breathing diesel," she explained. "And nobody wants to go last. It rotates."

An organized, open woman whom Caldwell called "a workhorse," Buchanan marched in the parade as a girl and joined the committee after retiring from 30 years as a psychiatric social worker, often caring for the criminally insane. Her husband, Robert, drives one of the tiny Shriners minicars that are always a hit.

"Today, I'm trying to get three bands," she said in an interview in July. "Calypso, oompah and, uh, Dixieland."

She laughed. But her voice changed when she listed others whose presence in the parade showed "how we're healing."

A float with the slogan "We Choose Love" is coming from Stratford, hometown of one of the teachers killed. Created by a school there, it's covered with flowers and butterflies, in tribute to the victims. Everything's made of multi-colored duct tape, including thousands of leaves. "We bought every roll of green duct tape in Connecticut," said Eileen Ferrigno of the Barnum Festival, which helped organize volunteers.

Therapy dogs that appeared in town after the shootings to give comfort will march.

So will the Marching Cobras, an award-winning drum line from New York that approached Buchanan, saying, "We'd never heard of Newtown until December."

(Continued on page 5)

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