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This week in Columbia's history: Longfellow celebrates 47 years of quirky parades

Since 1971, the Longfellow neighborhood of Harper's Choice has been celebrating Independence Day with a parade full of quirks and chaos. The neighborhood tradition includes a long-running softball game, a parade anyone can join and a generous helping of humor.

The parade is held on July 4 every year, with a strict rain-or-shine policy, said Barbara Russell, its organizer. Outraged at the idea of celebrating the Fourth on any other day, the parade's founders named it "The Longfellow Friends of the Traditional Fourth." Its annual tongue-in-cheek rain date, the Washington Post reported in 1999, is July 3.

Longfellow resident Bob Shinskie told The Baltimore Sun in 1999 that he and other residents dreamed up the softball game, and the subsequent parade, over a few beers in Laurel, when he challenged Ed Hamel to a softball game.

Since then, the event has ballooned. In the 1970s they ended the parade at the Hamels' yard with free hot dogs, the Sun reported, but gave up the tradition when the 1,500 hot dogs began disappearing within the first half hour.

Some parts of the parade are predictable, traditions 47 years in the making. Columbia Pro Cantare sings in each parade with a rendition of the national anthem; and every year, the festivities end with a softball game between the Hesperus Wrecks, who live off Hesperus Drive, and the Eliots Oak Nuts, who hail from Eliots Oak Road.

A firetruck from the Banneker fire station leads the parade, which loops around the two main Longfellow streets, beginning and ending at Longfellow Elementary School. Cub Scouts follow, then the parade's two awardees, the grand marshal and Good Neighbor. Members of the Harper's Choice village board — who one year carried a wooden board reading "Village Board," according to The Washington Post — follows close behind.

"We only have four or five in a specific order, then everyone else just gets in where they can," Russell said.

Every year, Russell said, Joe and Clair Mazalewski's house on Hesperus Drive becomes a parade reviewing stand, with "judges" holding up numbers to jokingly rate participants as the parade passes under an arch of balloons. The musical accompaniment for the parade has been provided for a number of years by the "Starvation Army" band, Russell said.

But amidst all these annual traditions is a sense of suspense: With no registration process, Russell said organizers never know who will be marching in the parade, or what they will do when they get there.

Common sights in the lineup include children on decorated bicycles, county politicians and the local swim team. But the event has also seen a kazoo band, wacky costumes and a "drill team" of women holding electric drills. In 1976, The Sun reported, there was a float entitled "Keep America Clean — Take a Bath with Someone," on top of which couples shared galvanized steel tubs.

That year, the county's police chief, Robert Mathews, stood in as grand marshal — his dog, Sargon, had been named grand marshal but could not tolerate the heat. All went well, The Sun wrote, until someone wearing an apron reading "Who Invited These Tacky People?" spilled beer on the chief.

Tacky or not, every participant has historically gotten a prize. "Everyone is assigned a different category," Barbara Russell's husband, Bob, told The Post in 1999, "and we give a prize for each category." Russell, who organized the parade for years before his death in 2010, identified himself to the paper as the "Official In-Charge Person."

The Russells had been involved in the parade since moving to Longfellow in 1975, and Bob Russell organized the parade for 15 years, making his presence felt with his booming voice and stars-and-stripes shorts. On July 4, 2010, at his last Longfellow parade, then-County Executive Ken Ulman issued a proclamation naming the day Bob Russell Day in Howard County.

"It meant a lot to Bob," said Russell, who still tears up when she talks about that day. "It was something that he was very involved in for a long time."

For all its oddball traditions, the heart of the parade is a serious patriotism. "Every house along the parade route flies the American flag," Schinskie told The Sun in 1980. A tradition that has taken hold in recent years is a food drive, with volunteers from "Food for Tomorrow," including County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who is expected to collect food again this year.

"It's a very important day, and something we should be very proud of but also enjoy," Russell said of July 4. "We're very fortunate to live in this country, and this county, and this neighborhood. We have a lot to celebrate."

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