2008-02-22 / Columnists

On The Beach

Remembering 'Sully' As The Parade Goes By
Commentary By Beverly Baxter

Beverly Baxter at last year's parade Beverly Baxter at last year's parade When I first moved to Rockaway more than seventeen years ago, one of the first events I attended with Owen Baxter, the man who would become my husband, was the Hearts and Shamrocks Dance at St. Camillus Hall.

The minute I walked into the room, I felt this immediate sense of enchantment. I had never before heard the lilting sound of Irish music and I was immediately enraptured. The rhapsodic rhythms and lyrical rhymes were familiar to me, in the sense that they were the essence of American folk and Country music. I had no idea how to do the Stack O' Barley or the Siege of Venice; yet my body responded to the soul of the music as if I'd been raised on its sounds.

The gymnasium served as the dance hall, which seemed so lovely and provincial. I had not been to a real dance in a gym since my high school days....and then there were all those people! Well over five hundred. And it seemed there were a thousand eyes on Owen Baxter and this lovely young lady on his arm. I had never felt so conspicuous in all my life! My first thoughts were of why people were staring....and it very soon became apparent that these weren't just people staring, they were neighbors in the very small "Our Town" sense of the word; and I was merely a stranger about whom they were curious. Very soon a throng had gathered around and wanted to know everything about the girl on Owen Baxter's arm. As my self-consciousness began to melt away by the heat of their warm welcome, I very soon discovered a culture that seemed carbonated with such vitality, which made other cultures seem flat. It was a most endearing quality, for which the Irish are noted - the spirit of Failte.

And James Conway Sullivan, though not Irish born, emanated it.

Very soon it was Jimmy's voice that boomed on the microphone, "And here's Owen Baxter, the Cavan Thrush, as usual, on time to be late, finally with a woman who can dress him!" And that's how we met. Jimmy and I became fast friends and shared a kindred spirit. I could listen to him for hours as he would move from one topic to another, whether it be Irish History, Politics, Poetry, Literature ...with the knowledge of a scholar, yet with the passion of a blissful child. He had such delightful witticisms that mirrored his intriguing culture, and he was happiest sitting alone, thumping the bar, and singing along with those exhilarating Irish Rebel songs.

And, while I've told the story each year around this time, I have to always remember my friend whose name is intertwined with every beat of the fife and drum and each movement of the march.

Anatural leader, Jimmy felt that the Irish community in Rockaway deserved its own parade. Of course, in its humble beginnings, the effort was ridiculed. The local paper dubbed Jimmy's idea of a parade, Sullivan's Follies. But Jimmy went marching along...with a few makeshift tri-color banners and his mother, sister, brothers and Tommy Touhey in tow! It soon swelled to its current distinction of being the second largest parade celebrating Irish culture and the Patron Saint of Ireland, St. Patrick. The parade, which steps off each year on the first Saturday in March, has become a part of Rockaway's folklore.

Since Jimmy's passing in 2001, the parade has been under the inspiring leadership of Michael Benn, who had some big shoes to fill; yet brought his own brand of leadership in bringing the entire parade committee, comprised of fifty members, along. Helping him to mount such a Herculean effort, are his wife Christina, and their massive and ever-growing family; Committee Vice President, Peggy Neville; parade Treasurer, John Brennan; Financial Secretary, Ed Rice; and Parliamentarian, John Murphy. Under Mike Benn's leadership, this fantastic annual Rockaway tradition continues to attract thousands of spectators to our shores.

This year, the parade committee will honor as its Grand Marshal, James T. Callahan, President and Business Manager, Local 15 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. The Honorary Grand Marshals are Captain Phylis Byrne and the Hon. Larry McDermott. The James Conway Sullivan Gael of the Year is John Perry, Minister, TD. Our Deputy Grand Marshals are: MSGR. John Brown, Dr. David Lichtenstein, Captain Patrick Kelly, James McVeigh, Bill Kinane, Grace Toland, Jane Deacy, Diane Willem and Pat Devine. Congratulations to this year's honorees and to Mike Benn and the committee on another parade season well done!

***See you....at the parade on March 1!

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