When the Towson July Fourth Parade kicks off Friday at 10:30, no one will be happier than Charles Connolly.
As chairman of the Parade Committee, Connolly will finally see the result of months of behind-the-scenes planning.
"I've been to a lot of parades; I've never run one," said Connolly, who found the experience full of surprises and challenges.
Throughout its 75-year history, the nonprofit Towson July Fourth Parade's dedicated volunteers from nearby neighborhoods have spent countless hours organizing the free event, a Towson tradition that last year attracted more than 60,000 people.
But age, ill health, retirement and relocation caught up with the volunteers. Three years ago, they asked the Towson Chamber of Commerce to take over the parade.
The chamber declined, twice. "This is a huge commitment," said Nancy Hafford, executive director of the chamber, which typically puts on more than 60 local events during the summer.
This year, though, the chamber agreed. There wasn't much of a choice. "By the way things were looking, the parade wasn't going to happen if we didn't do it," said Hafford, adding that since the chamber was first approached, Towson had grown so much that the chamber had members willing to do it.
A tall man dressed in khaki pants and a red T-shirt, the uniform of his firm, Farmers Insurance, on York Road, Connolly did not volunteer to chair the committee.
"The chamber came to me," said Connolly, a Towson resident and chamber board member, "because I can get stuff done. But I wanted a co-chair and a committee to help."
The chamber's 35-member Parade Committee was formed in February, often meeting weekly as the parade date approached. Not all were novices like Connolly. Bart Stocksdale, committee co-chairman, worked on the original committee.
"It was a fun group of longtime volunteers who made sure the parade ran smoothly," said Stocksdale, who proudly proclaims himself "Towson born and bred."
Stocksdale remembers attending the parade with his grandfather. "He took us kids. It was so much fun. I thought I'd like to be involved," said Stocksdale, a title settlement officer and now a grandfather himself.
Likewise, John Holman, a Towson resident and State Farm Insurance agent, was involved with the original committee, including a stint as vice president. This year, Holman says the parade will pretty much follow the pattern that it followed in previous years.
He doesn't anticipate much change in the future either. "A parade is a parade," said Holman, the current vice president and incoming president of the Towson chamber.
Connolly agrees. "The parade's been going on for 75 years. As the new organizers, we're not coming in to change it," he said, although he does note a few improvements.
Connolly created a Twitter account and a new website with a link for donations. He updated the Facebook page and is in the process of inputting records into a computer file so future committees don't have to start from scratch.
Still, Connolly says his biggest surprise was how much time and effort it took. "People think you flip a switch and the parade is on," he said, a misconception he said applied to himself as well.
It came as a surprise, for example, to discover that the committee needed to recruit 40 to 50 volunteer parade marshals to organize participants on the ground. It had to get on Towson University's calendar to provide a campus parking lot as a staging area. It spent three hours one night just organizing the marchers, based mostly on the bands' schedules.
But the biggest surprise, says Connolly, was that the parade had a budget. Moreover, when he assumed the chairmanship, the parade was already more than $30,000 in the hole.
The parade relies on donations and charges a nominal fee for neighborhood groups and nonprofits to participate. Slightly more than half of the budget goes for bands. The Towson parade usually has 10 to 12 bands and they cost, on average, $1,500 each.