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Catonsville residents view annual Fourth of July celebration

While other Baltimore suburbanites may look at Catonsville's Fourth of July celebration and parade as corny and anachronistic, the folks who faithfully line the parade route from Montrose to Bloomsbury avenues every Independence Day don't give a hoot what others think about their annual red, white and blue extravaganza.

Since its inception in 1947, Catonsville residents have made the parade a big part of their lives during the summer, a throwback to simpler times that never goes out of style. 

Although those who have been attending the event for years don't necessarily have a better idea of which spot along the route is best for their viewing pleasure, there's still an advantage from years of faithful attendance. But positioningis merely a matter of personal preference. No matter where fans find their seats along the route, it comes down to being able to soak in the patriotic, small-town atmosphere.

Craig Witzke took care of his spot permanently seven years ago by buying land across from the Catonsville Library on Frederick Road.

That said, like many in the community who join hands to make sure the 68-year-old event will continue to thrive, Witzke adds bleachers to the plot for the parade.

"Originally, it was so my grandmother and her friends would have a place to watch the parade," said the new owner of the Candlelight Funeral Home by Craig Witzke. "They would come all dressed up, so the people in the parade thought they were the judges and would stop right there. We had a lot of fun with that."

Again this year, Witzke and fellow members of the Catonsville Men's Civic Association sold raffle tickets for the winner to host his/her own viewing party on the Fourth, complete with seating. The effort raised $1,000 for the group.

"It's a fun fundraiser for a great event," said the Mount St. Joseph grad, who noted that he has either been in, or watched, the parade as long as he can remember.

As far as Jeff Hinton is concerned, you can take a man out of Catonsville, but you can't take Catonsville out of a man.

The Carroll County resident can usually be found among the parade route on the Fourth, "somewhere in the middle, between the library and Newburg (Avenue)."

And, typically, the 1983 Catonsville High grad, after leaving his Sykesville house in time to be in Catonsville by noon in order to avoid traffic, walks with his family toward the parade route from his buddy Witzke's house.

What he sees is "an awesome sight. It's like a Norman Rockwell painting. It's Americana. It's exciting each and every time I see it."

Being a Corvette fan, Hinton said he savors seeing the vintage sports cars in the parade.

He even used to show off his car in the parade, a two-door pink 1966 Cadillac that measured 22 feet from the front bumper to a chrome strip bisecting the taillights, making it longer than his wife's four-door Escalade by more than 3 feet.

Well before his car-owning days, Hinton said he took a particular path to the parade that still reverberates in his memory.

"I used to walk from Kent Avenue up Ingleside Avenue," he said on his journey as a youth.

Coldwell Banker real estate agent Kirby Spencer confessed she was not born in Catonsville, although she has lived in her adopted hometown for 25 years.

And her vantage point these days is not quite the same as it used to be, when she watched it from her ex-husband's company on the second floor of what is now Atwater's bakery, at 813 Frederick Rd.

Before that, in her early days at Coldwell Banker, she and her business colleagues employed a spirit of "community camaraderie" while making floats for the parade.

For the upcoming event, however, she will don a staff T-shirt reserved for marshals and to make sure crowds along the parade route stay off the street.

"It's the biggest small-town parade in the state," the Alexandria, Va. native said. "It's a must-see."

Joe Loverde and his wife, Cindy, won't have to worry about staking out a spot to watch the parade, seeing as how they are this year's grand marshals and will be in the celebration rather than watching it snake through the heart of Catonsville.

Instead, the Catonsville couple will be riding in Bob Mathers' 1975 Cadillac Eldorado.

Previously, he said that he and his wife would watch the proceeding from his office, Realty Concepts, at 611 Frederick Road, a "stone's throw" from the corner of Bloomsbury Avenue and Frederick Road.

The West Baltimore native added that he has been watching the parade for more than 40 years and has been involved in the community for three decades.

Sandra Gallagher-Mohler, the assistant women's track and field/cross country coach at Loyola University Maryland, said her family follows a "strict ritual" for the annual rite of summer.

"We go to my in-laws' house on Montrose and walk up to watch the parade," she said. "That's the perch."

Watching from the head of the parade is something she and her husband, Jeff, and their two kids enjoy.

"There's excitement in watching it from the beginning," she said.

Besides, she said, for Catonsvillians, the parade is a tradition unlike any other. "It's like a big reunion every year, sort of like Thanksgiving," she said. "It's the holiday around here."

For Larry Davis, watching the parade is only part of a day that includes some old-fashioned games and races for youngsters hosted by the Catonsville Men's Civic Association with sponsorship from the Association of Government Accountants.

As part of the annual morning of free fun for the little ones, there's also a patriotic bicycle decorating contest. Winners of the contest are encouraged to join the parade to show off their two-wheelers.

Then there are wheelbarrow and potato sack races, leapfrog and a shoe scramble, he noted.

"There's no Internet here," he said. "This is about old-fashioned fun."

By 1 p.m., Davis heads up to a huge party on Forest Drive, where generations of neighbors congregate on Independence Day at "Aunt Pat's house."

According to Davis, the day is "like Christmas in Catonsville. Two people who grew up next door to each other, Lee Buchness and Jen Fields, now live in Atlanta, but they come back for two weeks in July every year. Catonsville is a small town and getting smaller."

The group then walks up to Frederick Road at the appointed hour (3 p.m.) to watch the festivities.

George Deal, the parade chairman, said that staging the event that ends with a spectacular fireworks display , is a massive — and expensive — undertaking.

"We raise from between $85,000 to $100,000," he said on the fundraising to pay the tab.

He noted that he used to watch the parade from what is now Sugar Bakers Cakes on Frederick Road until working the event for the past 13 years.

The fireworks alone can cost $40,000, he said, or about $1,000 per minute. Other costs include portable toilets, security and insurance.

ABC Rentals, though, donates generators and other items that do not add to the bottom line.

"That's why we're successful," Deal said. "There are a lot of people who make this work."

Jeff Utzinger, an Arbutus resident, said that while his hometown has its own parade just after noon on the Fourth, the goal has always been to get all the neighboring communities together for the explosive ending at Catonsville High.

After helping with the annual Arbutus Firecracker 10k race that starts and finishes at Arbutus Middle School that morning, an event that attracts hundreds of local residents every year that is also part of the holiday tradition, Utzinger heads to the Catonsville parade.

He won't have to worry about finding a seat along the route, however. As the parade co-chair, he'll be riding in a golf cart to help out should anything go awry.

"Somebody might fall out (faint from the heat), and we'll have emergency personnel ready," he said. "But we've never had an issue with rowdy fans. Everybody comes to have a good time."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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