Holyoke’s ‘Homecoming’ is a Year-round Labor of Love
Step by Step
It was only a few days after the last marchers had passed the reviewing stand at the 65th annual Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, but committee members were already hard at work breaking down that event and beginning work on the next one. It’s been this way since the beginning, in 1952, for what committee members prefer to call a ‘homecoming’ rather than a parade. The event is in many respects like a half-million-dollar business, but it’s different in one important respect: its lifeblood is committee members who not only volunteer, but pay for the privilege of being part of this labor of love.
There’s a clock in the upper right-hand corner of the home page on the website for the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade that counts down the days, hours, and minutes to the start of the next one, the 66th, set for March 19, 2017.
It’s there for the potential attendees and the general public, said Michael Moriarty, president of Olde Holyoke Development Corp. and the incoming chairman of the Parade Committee, adding quickly that those who make this event happen don’t need a countdown.
“They have one in their head,” he joked, adding that the roughly 120 active members of the committee (there are nearly 300 total) know just how many days — and at least one actually does know how many hours — there are to the next parade. And they also know what they have to do each month — and even each week — between now and then to assure that this ‘homecoming,’ as they prefer to call it, comes off with as few hitches as possible.
But while parade committee members don’t need a clock, they certainly need a good calendar, excellent time-management skills, and an understanding spouse or significant other, said Moriarty, adding that, if they are truly active — and most are just that — they will attend dozens of meetings over the next 335 days or so. In fact, most have already been to several since the 65th parade concluded just a few weeks ago.
There are no fewer than 22 subcommittees working on the event, said Moriarty, with assignments ranging from the pre-parade road race to marketing; from determining which bands will march to deciding who will receive each of the many coveted honors bestowed each year.
“We have lots of subcommittees because we have lots of moving parts,” he said, adding that what looks like extreme bureaucracy and overkill to some is actually a conscientious attempt to make sure each of those moving parts moves properly by awarding ownership of it to a laser-focused group with the requisite talents (more on that in a bit).
As BusinessWest talked with members of the parade’s Marketing Committee at Johnny’s Tavern in South Hadley just a few weeks after the parade, there were comparisons made between organizing the parade and a running a half-million-dollar business, which is what this is.
And, in many cases, the comparisons work. The parade, like a business, has to be mindful of revenues and expenses, always with the goal of making sure the latter do not exceed the former. It must also put a premium on customer service and providing value for patrons. And, like ventures across all sectors of the economy, it puts an emphasis on continuous improvement.
But in many other ways, the analogy doesn’t work as well. The biggest difference is that the employees, the committee members, are not only volunteers, but they pay for the right to attend all those meetings and do all that work. Indeed, there is an annual fee or dues payment — a check that committee members look forward to writing.
“We don’t have any paid staff, and we’re one of the very few parades of this size that does not have a paid executive director,” said Moriarty, adding that the event has relied on generations of volunteers.
In a word, the parade is not a business, but a tradition, and so is the committee itself, with many members noting with pride in their voices that they are second- or third-generation participants. But while most traditions are resistant to change — and this one was for many years as well — it has come to the parade and the committee that organizes it, and in a meaningful way, said Alan Cathro, an officer with Meriden, Conn.-based Tucker Mechanical, who pointed at the people sitting at the table to get his point across.
“Until 1988 or so, it was all white men who were asked to be on the committee,” he said, noting that the parade committee was, in many respects, defined by what would be called ‘old Holyoke.’ Today, women comprise roughly half the parade committee, and it is diverse in many other ways as well, said Cathro, referring to race, age, and geography, among other traits.
It is this diversity that has enabled the parade to grow in size and stature and extend its influence well beyond the borders of Holyoke to become part of the fabric of the entire region.
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Holyoke parade, the committee that runs it, how this is a tradition that has changed with the times, and why those committee members don’t need a clock ticking down the days.
When asked about those two dozen subcommittees and their various assignments, Moriarty offered a heavy sigh, but also a determined look that seemed to indicate that he could list them all if pressed and given enough time.
But when afforded the opportunity to provide a sampling, he seized upon it.
There is a committee devoted to the selection of a grand marshal, perhaps the most coveted honor, he noted, adding quickly that there is essentially a committee for each of the many awards that have been added over the years and the announcement events that are part of that process.
These range from the John F. Kennedy Award, presented annually to an American of Irish descent who has distinguished themselves in their chosen field, to the O’Connell Award, presented to a long-standing member of the Parade Committee who has made significant contributions to the fund-raising efforts of the parade and/or the association.
There’s also a committee (a large one) that handles both the March road race and the so-called ‘Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day Road Race,’ which, as that name suggests, is staged each fall. There’s a panel to run the annual fund-raising golf tournament in October, another to pick the Grand Colleen and her court, still another that’s charged with producing the annual parade program book (this year’s ran 124 pages), and on it goes.
Meanwhile, there are committees for the many area cities and towns that now have a significant presence at the parade, a lengthy list that includes Chicopee, West Springfield, Westfield, and many other communities.
As he noted earlier, Moriarty said the committees assume ownership of a specific assignment, thus providing a measure of quality assurance regarding all those parts to the whole.
“We break up into different areas of interest, with some of them related specifically to the parade, and some to the many events that precede it,” he explained. “We have a lot of skilled builders on our floats committee, for example; we have folks who assess and select all the bands; we have a coordination committee that works early on to make sure that things are lined up and come out onto the street properly — and that’s a very intensive bit of work that goes on well before anyone shows up in Holyoke.”
In fact, said Cathro, probably half of the subcommittees will have the bulk of their work, if not all of it, done two months before the parade.
But the work for the next year begins as soon as the parade or another specific event assigned to a subcommittee is in the books, said Brian Donoghue, a sales representative with ASICS Corp., who used the Road Race Committee, which he chairs, and its recent meeting to review this year’s race, as an example.
“We went over what worked and what didn’t, and we had a list of really every little thing that happened over those two days, the Friday and Saturday,” he noted. “It was three pages of notes — this went well, this didn’t go well, this needs to change — while it’s fresh in everyone’s mind.”
When asked how it went, he offered a firm “we did OK this year.”
More specifically, “we kept waiting for something to go wrong,” he joked, “and nothing really did.”
This same kind of commitment to detail, critical review, and continuous-improvement philosophy permeates each committee, said Moriarty, and this quality has facilitated continued growth and excellence.
Band of Brothers — and Sisters
Overall, the Holyoke parade, as an institution, likes to look back and reflect on the past, said Cathro, adding that this exercise involves everything from the weather that has greeted the event — everything from snow to mid-70s temperatures — to famous personalities, a list that includes the actor Robert Stack, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author Tom Clancy, JFK, and his brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy.
But in general, and especially after that year’s parade is in the books, the focus is squarely on the future and writing new chapters to that storied legacy.
Together, the committee, the subcommittees, and their makeup convey how the parade has grown and changed — and, in many important ways, not changed — over the years, he went on, noting, as others did, that the parade has evolved from a Holyoke event into a regional phenomenon now ranked at or near the very top of the nation’s largest and most prestigious St. Patrick’s Day parades — and parades of any kind.
And while it’s not written down anywhere, it is the committee’s basic — and very broad — assignment to make sure that the parade maintains this distinction and is in all ways worthy of it.
Again, as all those smaller committees would suggest, there is much that goes into this, said Moriarty, who listed everything from securing the many local, regional, and even national sponsors for the event to taking the multi-faceted marketing efforts to a national level, to forging a relationship with WGBY, Channel 57, to televise the parade and thus give it status afforded to only a few parades across the country.
What makes the Holyoke parade special and one of the most prestigious events of its kind in the country is the sum of procession that moves through the streets of Holyoke, said Sheila Moreau, vice president of Sales & Marketing and professional development coordinator for Springfield-based Mindwing Concepts Inc., listing everything from those aforementioned celebrities to bands like the internationally known Mummers.
There are expenses attached to most all of those elements, she went on, adding that some bands cost as much as $5,000, and even high-school bands must be compensated for their appearances.
This puts a premium on finding sponsors, she told BusinessWest, noting that this is work the public doesn’t see, but it’s critically important to maintaining the parade’s high standards for quality. And to sell the parade to sponsors, committee members don’t sell it as a parade.
“It’s not just a road race, it’s not just a parade, it’s this whole weekend — it’s kind of a festival of sorts, a true homecoming,” said Moreau, adding that this message resonates not only with local companies like Holyoke-based PeoplesBank and a host of smaller businesses that call the Paper City home, but also with regional stalwarts such as Big Y and international corporations such as Stop & Shop and Aer Lingus. “We have an incredible product for people to be involved with.”
But it certainly helps to be able to show these sponsors just what kind of value they’re getting for their contribution, she went on, adding that the parade’s Marketing Committee can now provide detailed information about just how many individual impressions they will generate by putting their name in front of the 400,000 attendees.
And while it’s essential to note what those selling sponsorships or carrying out the subcommittee work do to make the annual homecoming memorable and run smoothly, said Moriarty, it’s more important to examine how that work is carried out, and by whom.
Regarding the former, he noted that, while there is more diversity than ever when it comes to who works on the parade, the common denominator remains passion for the event and a firm understanding of all that it means, not just to Holyoke, but the region.
As for the latter, as he looked around the table at Johnny’s, he noted the many young faces, the fact that half those present were women, and some of those present were definitely not of Irish descent.
“Those are all very healthy signs,” he said, adding that, where once individuals had to be asked to serve, now people can request to be part of this tradition. And many do, said Moriarty, adding that recruitment has never really been a problem, especially of late.
“I’ve been on the committee for 29 years, and I’ve witnessed this dichotomy — on the one hand, we’ve been successful for a very long time, and you never want to break the stuff that you did right last year,” he said. “So there’s a lot of resistance to change for that very legitimate reason. But at the same time, we’re in a dynamic economy where the source of our sponsors change, and in a world where service oganizations are not growing or getting younger.
“We’re an exception to that — we’re growing, and we’re getting younger, and a big reason for that is the change that allowed women to be members,” he went on. “We wouldn’t have a committee if we weren’t open to bringing women on.”
But beyond the breaking of the gender wall, the parade continues to attract young people from across the region who are drawn by everything from the majesty of the event to the friendships that come from being part of it all.
Hayley Dunn, a community relations and economic development specialist with Eversource Energy, summed things up nicely.
“I’m a second-generation member, and my sister is a member as well; we have a lot of pride in the history of the parade and the organization and the work that our fathers and grandfathers have done,” she told BusinessWest, using that collective ‘we’ to refer to everyone in the room and those who will be attending all those other meetings over the next 340 days. “So we don’t want to see these events fail. I felt a duty … I came to Holyoke, and I joined the Parade Committee to make sure this amazing homecoming event keeps going. ”
Such sentiments go a long way toward explaining why this event continues to grow in size and stature — and also why none of the committee members need to look at that countdown clock on the home page.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]