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Staging Catonsville's July 4th festivities takes a corps of dedicated volunteers

"What's not to love about a good parade and fireworks?" asks Brian Lewis. "It's good, clean, all-American fun."

Lewis is heading up the Catonsville 4th of July Commitee for the first time this year and he expects a higher turnout since the holiday is on a Tuesday, not close to a weekend when more people tend to travel.

Decades of Independence Day parades and fireworks have been supported by teams of volunteers and while parades in Catonsville and Arbutus have new leaders this year, the traditions stay the same.

"It's flat-out family fun," Lewis said of the day.

Coordination and planning for the events, which attract thousands, takes place throughout the year, with the pace of activities intensifying in the weeks before July 4th.

In Catonsville, volunteers have organized the festivities since 1947. Lewis, a 52-year-old funeral director, said his general chairman position constantly rotates — one can be in the role for no more than three years.

While he's been involved for about six years, Lewis said others have taken part for more than 50.

"It hasn't changed over the last 40 years," said 83-year-old George Abendschoen, a longtime volunteer for the Catonsville parade who has lost count on the number of years he has helped out.

Abendschoen can be found near the start of the parade, making sure the 125 to 150 floats, bands and groups are lined up in the right order. He is one of nearly 100 volunteers who help over the course of the parade and fireworks. Lewis said 20 volunteers work year-round to arrange the events.

The Catonsville celebrations, which cost nearly $100,000 to put together, including $40,000 for a fireworks show, are funded through donations, mostly from residents and local businesses. The parade will feature between 13 and 18 bands, which charge between $1,500 and $5,000, apiece.

Fundraising is continuous, Lewis said. Once 2017's event is fully funded, which he said is close to happening, the money raised will be seed money for the following year.

"We don't have a big bank account sitting waiting with money waiting to be spent," he said.

The first planning for the parade starts in August, when members review the parade and how they can improve the next year's events.

As the first days of July approach, it's crunch time. Volunteers will begin putting signs and stakes at the Montrose Avenue staging area for bands, floats and other participants.

"If we're not organized and people just show up the day of the parade it can be a disaster," Lewis said.

Volunteers will arrive at about 9 a.m. on July 4th for last-minute items, such as putting out trash cans. Participants will arrive starting at 11 a.m. to set up and make final preparations on their floats and make sure everyone's coordinating their clothing. Step-off is at 3 p.m.

A separate team of volunteers, trained to assist with pyrotechnics, help with the fireworks show. Lee Fitzsimmons, 54, is one of three committee members certified as a fireworks shooter. For 28 of the 30 years he has volunteered for July 4th, he has helped with the fireworks show.

To be able to shoot fireworks, Fitzsimmons goes through state testing and is certified to handle fireworks at the federal level. He also gets training from Zambelli Fireworks, the company that sells the pyrotechnics.

The shooters, while members of the committee, are paid by Zambelli to launch the show, instead of having company employees do it. The members donate the money back to the show, which covers about 10 percent of the $28,000 in fireworks that is ordered, Fitzsimmons said.

"None of us get a dime, but the community gets our paycheck back in shells," he said.

Planning for the fireworks show starts July 5, when the group reviews what went right or wrong and what they want to do for the coming year. As the group develops the show, they look for new shells, effects or colors. They start having conversations with Zambelli in December or January before a contract is signed.

It takes two days to bring the show from Zambelli's warehouse in Walkersville, Md., to the field at Catonsville High School, Fitzsimmons said. On July 3, the group gets the racks of mortars, or firing guns, to set up and at 6 a.m. on July 4th, they acquire the fireworks. They arrive back in Catonsville at about 9 a.m. and spend most of the day — usually until 5 or 6 p.m. — loading them.

When the 9:15 p.m. show is completed, the volunteers begin cleaning up the grounds through the early hours of the following day. Crews come out again once the sun comes out for one last sweep, Fitzsimmons said.

Chairs are lined up along the Frederick Avenue parade route as early as three weeks before the holiday, as residents reserve their seats for the parade. By the morning of July 4, hundreds of chairs, with twine or rope holding them down, will be along Frederick Road, Lewis said.

"It's been a tradition for years," he said. "The closer we get to the Fourth, the more chairs you're going to see."

About a week before the holiday, space will begin to be claimed near the fireworks show, where people believe they'll get the best views, particularlyalong the hill between the parking lot and ball field at Catonsville High School.

In Arbutus, a committee was formed to replace its longtime July 4th parade organizer, George Kendrick, who stepped down after 19 years due to declining health. It includes community members and representatives from the community organization Arbutus Town Hall, the Arbutus Recreation and Parks Council and Greater Arbutus Business Association.

The committee is led by Carl Boyer, a 49-year-old Baltimore County Public Schools maintenance worker, a home improvement contractor, and owner of Yogi's, Boo Boo and Carl's catering company, based in Arbutus. He said he was approached by Kendrick to organize the parade.

"We're working hard to continue his legacy and build on his legacy," said Bettina Tebo, president of the business association.

A $30,000 goal was set for this year's parade, but a month before the parade, about $4,000 was raised, Boyer said. If the goal is not met, it may be smaller in scale than in past years.

The money is used to help pay participating bands, and buy insurance, permits and advertising.

Much of the money raised comes from a morning 10K race held on July 4th.

Kendrick and his daughter, Valerie, have helped with the transition, said Jeff Choyce, a committee member.

"In the words of Carl, Mr. George had everything in his head," he said. "You can't hook a flash drive to his brain, so we're trying to get information from him as best as we can."

Organizers are unsure how long the longtime tradition has taken place in Arbutus.

New this year, the parade committee is asking parade participants to register ahead of time, so the parade's lineup can be better organized. To register, email arbutusparade@gmail.com.

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