The year was 2012 and controversy was swirling in The Villages.
That’s because The Villages Entertainment Department had made a shocking announcement – the community’s highly popular parades were being discontinued. The decision was quite upsetting to many Villagers. And it left others who moved to the community for a lifestyle that included those parades questioning the moniker “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.”
But a group of residents decided that the decision simply was unacceptable and before long, the Resident Parade Committee was formed. That group vowed to save the Italian, German and St. Patrick’s Day parades – the annual Christmas Parade was held at The Villages Polo Fields and wasn’t among the events scheduled to be axed – so members of the Irish, Italian and German clubs joined forces to keep the events alive in Spanish Springs Town Square.
“We now have two parades under our belts. I was blown away,” said Jackie Campbell.
The maiden effort of the parade committee had been in March 2013 with the Irish Parade. The October Italian Parade featured The Villages Cheerleaders, The Villages Twirlers, Chatham Chicks, Clown Alley, the Hangar Flyers Club and the Dynamic Dog Club, among others. It also was deemed a huge success and the many red-shirted volunteers who participated were thanked for getting participants lined up, setting up orange cones, acting as parade marshals and cleaning up after the event.
The committee hit another home run that same month when beer, brats and sauerkraut were in high demand as the German Parade marched through Spanish Springs.
“When you can’t get the real thing, this is the next best thing,” said Village of Santiago resident Jim Houdek, who along with his wife, Bonnie, had visited Germany during the authentic Oktoberfest.
Walter Schubert, a Village of Winifred resident from Germany, agreed.
“No, it’s not exactly Germany, but you can close your eyes and for maybe a moment it takes you back,” he said.
Golf carts were decorated with beer steins and pretzels. German music filled the air. And the Swinging Bavarians entertained the crowd during the parade and later from the Del Mar stage.
In November 2013, after working diligently for four months to create the well-attended, volunteer-run parades, members of the Resident Parade Committee – Frank Truglio and Vinni Demato (Italian Clubs); Kirk Freundt and Hazel Reale (German Clubs); Jackie Campbell, Pat Ross, Sally Canna, Maureen Curran, Jack McTigue, BJ Baden, Joan McDonald, Jim Kozinski and Rick Cinella (Irish Clubs) – took some time to relax and enjoy dinner with their spouses/partners.
The Resident Parade Committee continued to roar in 2014 with its second Irish Parade. Big crowds lined the streets as the parade staged entirely by Villagers took to the streets of the sprawling community. And they saw plenty – numerous decorated golf carts, Irish clubs, The Villages Cheerleaders, The Villages Twirlers and even a kazoo band.
A husband-and-wife, both named Pat, had the distinction of being named the Irish Couple of the Year by the Irish American Club St. Patrick’s Division.
Thus, they rode in the parade in a golf cart showing their distinction.
“It’s just a great day to be Irish. Having the parade is wonderful and to see so many people come out,” said Pat Gillooley, the husband of the Pat & Pat duo of the Village of El Cortez.
In October, the group’s Italian American Parade also was deemed a huge success. It featured 140 decorated golf carts, 400 walkers and a first for a resident-controlled parade – an appearance by The Villages High School Band.
“It’s a big deal, because we haven’t had a school band before,” said committee member Jackie Campbell.
Later that same month, Gemutlichkeit – the friendly, zesty spirit – of the Oktoberfest Parade came to life in Spanish Springs. It was a day that featured brats and sauerkraut, pretzels and beer and the um-pah music of The Swinging Bavarians. And the parade, featuring the marching Frauleins and Herrs and flags representing every German state, was a huge success for the second year in a row.
The Resident Parade Committee has continued to put on parades in The Villages every year since those first events in 2013. The group stuck with three parades per year until last year when a big changed was announced – the separate Italian and German parades would be merged into one event, which was renamed the Heritage Parade.
That parade made its debut on Oct. 16 in Spanish Springs, and if the size of the crowd, the number of participants and the enthusiasm expressed across the board were indicators of success, then the Heritage Parade was a winner.
“It was pretty awesome,” said Sheik Don Haydu, leader of The Villages Belly Dancers. “It was a great crowd and we had a lot of fun.”
Jerry Peacock, of The Villages Twirlers and Drum Corps, said his group also had a great time, even though they definitely felt the heat.
“The crowd was very enthusiastic,” he said, adding that his group had about 18 drummers and 15 twirlers giving it their all. “We really enjoyed it.”
Longtime Villager Joan Testa also was having plenty of fun as she walked in the parade pushing a dog named “Sonny Corleone” while bragging about her Italian heritage.
“He’s the Godfather,” she said of the Beagle, who seemed to be enjoying the stroller ride and constant rubs he was getting. “This is just great and we’re having so much fun.”
Another Villager who was having more than her share of fun was Irene McGee, better known as Miss Gabbie. The proud member of Clown Alley #179 was pushing a stroller holding a large stuffed animal that resembled a cross between a gorilla and a lovable dog.
“This is my son Tony, who looks just like my husband,” she said with a huge laugh. “My husband (Al) won’t come to these events because he doesn’t want people to get them confused with each other,” she added with a patented clown smile.
The parade also featured a large contingent from The Col. Phillip C. DeLong Detachment of the Marine Corps League in The Villages. Villager Neil Stapleton was leading the group’s Color Guard and said they appreciated the positive reaction and comments from the crowd as they marched around the square in the intense heat.
“What most impressed me is we’re a bunch of old guys and we stayed in step,” the 24-year Marine said with a smile. “We enjoy this kind of thing and we’re happy to serve the community.”
All told, the Resident Parade Committee consists of 15 members from four Irish clubs (Irish American St. Patrick Club, Irish American Shamrock Club, Irish American Claddagh Club and Celtic Club), three Italian clubs (The Original Italian American Club, Italian American Club South and Benvenuto Club) and two German clubs (German American Club and Village Deutscher Club).
The parade committee has a vital partnership with the Recreation Department, which lends its support to the events. And scores of volunteers continue to handle parking, staging, check-in and clean up, among other duties.