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Towson's July 4th event conjures up sentimental, humorous moments

Justin KingArthritis

Something always goes wrong, according to Jackie Sims, who, for 25 years, has been a member of the all-volunteer committee which fundraises for and produces the two-hour annual Towson Area Fourth of July Parade.

One year, Fifi, the huge poodle float from the Visionary Arts Museum, lost an ear because of a tree limb, and the lady riding her had to carry it on her lap.

Another year, the costumed chicken from the Red Robin restaurant, who was about to get into a convertible lent by a Republican women's group, stopped dead in her tracks. "I can't ride in this," she said. "I'm a Democrat."

The Towson Area Fourth of July Parade committee starts working on the next year's parade the day after the previous year's, "crossing our t's and dotting our i's," said Sims who is co-chairing this year's procession with Maryann Albaugh. "From July 5 to July 3 (of the next year), somebody is doing something to put this parade on the street."

However, come parade day, something always happens, Sims said: "Last-minute substitutions, people ignoring directions, flat tires, engine lock-ups, units out of order, units that don't show up, volunteers that don't show up, marching bands we didn't know about that do show up …

"But thankfully, the thousands of spectators who line the streets are usually blissfully unaware of any of it. They just get to see a terrific parade, remember our history and honor our military men and women," Sims said.

For Maryann Albaugh, who has served on the committee since 2001 and took over the chairmanship five years ago, there is no relaxing after a parade is over. 

"Heavens, no," Albaugh said. "Right away I started thinking about how it could be better next year, what the crowd liked and what we could do to head off problems."

The sentimental moment from parades past that stands out in her mind involved Baltimore Colts football great Art Donovan when he was the parade's Grand Marshal in 2003.

"We'd gotten special permission for the Colts Marching Band to play the Colts marching song," she said. "He just had tears running down his face."

Towson lawyer John Hayden, who chaired the parade in 1996 and 1997, said "it just hit me in the heart," riding in the lead convertible, listening to the cheering crowds and looking at the faces.

"The parade was about 125,000 smiles long," he said.

And the enthusiasm of the volunteers floored him. "The first year I was taking deep breaths and crossing my fingers, but then I realized these people knew what they were doing. It was an incredibly organized effort by people who had committed themselves to working on the parade for years and it was going to go," Hayden said.

Former Towson resident Judy Gregory has been handling all the bands and units for the committee since 2006, despite her arthritis problems and how she wilts in the heat. 

"I have had something to do with anything that walks down the street," she said.

That includes everything from processing 100 or so applications to checking the parade phone for messages and picking up mail. 

"It's a lot of work" for a two-hour event, Gregory said. "But I felt it was my patriotic duty. They needed the help. Jackie Sims can be very persuasive."

Lawyer Justin King, a former president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, who is now a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge, recalls announcing the parade units passing by the Bosley Avenue reviewing stand 20 years ago. 

"I had a front-row seat for every participant," said King. "It's one of my favorite memories."

But he couldn't always depend on the script, he said. Frequently, units and bands that had participated in the Dundalk and Arbutus parades earlier in the day and were scheduled to march in Towson were tied up in traffic so things were out of order.

"You needed to be able to ad lib and be quick on your feet and make sure who it was that was passing by," King said. "You didn't want to announce the West Side Rollers when it was the Boumi Temple."

Stoneridge resident Frank Kaufmann, a retired school principal, served as the parade treasurer for a decade starting in the 1990s. His task, he said, was complicated by the fact that many people don't realize that it takes $30,000 to produce the parade. The committee has to pay most of the bands — sometimes thousands of dollars — and the government provides no funding.

"I haunted the parade mail box every day, looking for contributions. It was always in the back of my mind," Kaufmann said.

Kaufmann wants to set the record straight about the years when the Calvert Hall College High School band used to march in the parade in fancy uniforms, while the Towson High School band played in T-shirts and shorts that occasionally drew sneers.

At 7 that morning the Towson High Band Boosters' parents would gather students, alumni and parents — "anybody who could play an instrument" — at the Burger King and give them them breakfast and the T-shirts with the Towson High logo on them. The T-shirts worked because the parents and alumni couldn't fit into Towson High's student uniforms.

"They really did their best," Kaufmann said. "It always worked out beautifully." 

For former Towson Councilman Wayne Skinner, who chaired the parade in 1982 and 1983, the most vivid memory was "the kids sitting on the curb, all excited by the noise and the bands and the fire trucks, pointing and laughing, just like I  used to do when I was the kid sitting on the curb," he said.

"That was a long time ago when someone put the parade on for me," Skinner said. "I realized that now it was my turn to put the parade on for somebody else's kids." 

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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