Future of Hampden Mayor's Christmas Parade in doubt

Tom Kerr was president of the old Hampden Businessmen's Association in 1972, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer asked him to organize the Hampden Mayor's Christmas Parade.

Although Schaefer was a Democrat and Kerr a Republican, Kerr was a big supporter and glad to help. But five years later, he was wearing out as the parade chairman.

"Governor," he said, "I don't know if I can keep doing this."

"Oh," said Schaefer, "you can do it one more year."

As the 39th annual Mayor's Christmas parade gets set to march from Falls Road to The Avenue on Sunday, Kerr is saying those same words.

"I'm going to do it one more year," said the 68-year-old Hampden resident. "That's it."

Kerr is serious about stepping down after the 2012 parade.

"I'm going for 40," he said.

But he has no answer for the inevitable follow-up questions: Who will take over for him, or will the high-profile parade, which almost always draws the mayor (even Sheila Dixon in the midst of a political scandal in 2009), simply fade away after 40 years?

"I've talked to people but they say, 'I'll help you.' They can't or don't want to" be chairman. "Nobody wants to say, 'I'm the one who's responsible.'"

The Hampden Community Council knows of Kerr's plans and is looking into taking over the parade, said president Adam Feuerstein and secretary Genny Dill.

"We're investigating," Dill said. "I don't think anybody will let it die. I don't think it'll be a situation where nobody picks up the baton."

Kerr will be a tough act to follow.

"Certainly, his name is synonymous with the parade," Feuerstein said.

Kerr hopes someone will step in but doesn't blame those who don't want to march in his footsteps. He said pulling the parade together gets harder each year, from getting sponsorships and raising money (the 2011 parade will cost $30,000) to convincing Baltimore City to insure the event.

This year's parade, Dec. 4 at 2 p.m., will feature a giant steam Calliope, 150 Harley Davidson bikes, many marching bands, two 40-foot balloons, equestrian units, television, radio and sports personalities, Boumi Shrine units, Miss Yuletide Kasidee Rae Leybold and Junior Miss Yuletide Savanna Fisher, and Santa Claus.

Even finding someone to be grand marshal is getting harder. As of last week, Kerr had no one lined up for Sunday's parade. He said ttwo well-known Baltimoreans turned him down, citing prior commitments.

Ninety five percent of Hampden businesses, as well as the Hampden Community Council, have donated money for the parade, but costs have risen, too, Kerr said. The bill was $1,700 just for helium for the balloons and $500 for portapotties, he said. And he cited higher gas prices for busing marching bands from as far away as Pennsylvania.

Kerr has several advantages as parade chairman, not the least of which is that everyone knows him as an active member of Hampden's business and residential communities, including former longtime merchants' association president, and a former member of the Hampden Community Council.

Kerr long ago earned the nickname of "unofficial mayor of Hampden.

Kerr also has more than 50 parade volunteers, including his wife, Sharen, who handles parade-related correspondence, his daughter, Stacy, who writes all the checks, and his son, Brooks (named for Baltimore Orioles great Brooks Robinson), who serves as his right-hand man.

Even so, the parade is a full-time job from September through November and fraught with potential pitfalls.

"Half the parade didn't show up one year," he said. Another year, a horse bucked its rider, galloped down 41st Street and ended up in a neighbor's yard, he said.

"It keeps you going," he said last week, wearing a white cap with "Mayor's Christmas Parade" in red lettering.

Now, he is winding down.

"My wife said 40 (years) is long enough."

But he wants to stay involved.

"My epitaph will say, 'Parade Man.'"

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