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Towson Chamber of Commerce takes on organizing of Towson Fourth Parade

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.

Other expenses include special event insurance, Spot-a-Pot rentals and golf carts for parade marshals. Connolly ended up writing a personal check to cover part of the shortfall.

Lining up participants was a challenge. Doing it early is preferable. Participants may already have other commitments and the more popular they are, the bigger the demand.

Baltimore's Marching Ravens, the official marching band of the Baltimore Ravens, is participating in three parades on July Fourth, racing from Dundalk to Towson to Catonsville. The next day, July 5, they will march in Havre de Grace's parade.

The White Sabers Drum Corps, from New York state, arrives in Baltimore the day before the parade, then spends July Fourth marching in four parades in the metro area, including Towson.

Holman says the committee aimed for a mix of elements, although certain participants — local high school bands, the Maryland National Guard Honor Guard, the military veterans, the local politicians — are practically a requirement.

"The parade is a family event. Mostly local residents attend. That's what they like to see," he said.

Even a fire engine, preferably historic — for the sixth year, the privately owned 1934 American LaFrance Fire Engine will participate — is essential. "I'm not sure how it happened but fire engines and parades go together," said Holman.

The only element the Parade Committee can't control is the weather. The parade goes on rain or shine. Holman remembers one parade was held in a continuous downpour. Another parade was held in sweltering 100-degree heat.

"Near the end of the parade route, people had drifted away," he said of the latter. "No one was there."

Hopefully, that won't happen this year: The temperature will be a comfortable 75; it won't rain; all the participants will find their places in the right order; they will start and end on time.

After all, Connolly and the Parade Committee have done their part. "It took individuals, businesses, retirees and a lot of people to pull together to put on this fabulous event," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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