150th Florence Memorial Day Parade to include jets, longer route

  • Mary Ellen Englaish and Paula Benoit help decorate the Polish Heritage float at the Florence Memorial Day Parade May 29. The parade will celebrate its 150th anniversary this year. Gazette File Photo/Carol Lollis

Friday, May 25, 2018

FLORENCE — It’s an event that only comes around every 150 years and that requires a big commemoration.

The 150th Memorial Day parade Monday in Florence will feature a longer parade route, nearly 1,500 marchers and a fighter jet flyover. This year the parade will step-off at 1 p.m. from Smith Vocational High School and head through the Florence village center past the Sojourner Truth statue to Pine Street before ending at the Elks Lodge.

“Florence has the longest continuously running parade on Memorial Day in the country,” said Steve Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veterans' Services. “I know that to be true because I remember going through a hail storm as a kid.”

The first Memorial Day parade was held in Northampton in 1868, just after the Civil War, and included the decoration of the graves of deceased service members in the Park Street Cemetery in Florence, a tradition that has continued every year since, regardless of weather.

“We need to recognize these milestones. They don’t come along that often,” said Mike Flynn, co-chairman of the parade committee.

Before the parade, a remembrance ceremony will be held at the Park Street Cemetery in Florence at 10 a.m. which will include the laying of the wreath and a gun salute followed by the playing of taps. Local Girl Scouts bring flowers to put on graves in the cemetery.

In addition to the latter step-off time and longer route for the parade, dignitaries from around the state and region will be in attendance including the Adjutant General Massachusetts National Guard, Major General Gary W. Keefe. A native of Northampton, Keefe will give the keynote address at the conclusion of the parade at the Elks #997 Lodge on Spring Street.

Members of the U.S. Navy Silver Dolphins precision rifle drill team, based out of Groton, Connecticut, will march in the parade as well as area high school bands including the Northampton High School band and the Springfield Central high School ROTC band.

“I’m extremely proud of the city and our long tradition of honoring memorial day,” Mayor David Narkewicz said.

Narkewicz gave kudos to the volunteers who have worked for almost a year to plan the 150th commemoration.

“I think it’s emblematic of Northampton’s larger commitment to our veterans and the long and proud history of service to our nation,” he said.

Leeds resident Brenda Ryan became involved this year in helping to organize the floats after being asked by a friend whose son died while on active duty.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to honor our veterans and our military and give them the respect they deserve for allowing us to have the freedom to live our life everyday and make the choices that we get to make because they’ve made choices and scarifies for their country,” she said. “It’s important to honor them in the most respectful way that we can, knowing they have gone through so much and endured so much for everyone here.”

Brad LeVay, president of the Veterans Council of Northampton, became involved in the Florence Memorial Day commemoration in the 1950s after serving in the Marine Corps. LeVay served in Korea and is the recipient of a Purple Heart.

“I think it brings back a lot of memories,” LeVay said of Memorial Day. “It is a very somber day for me … it is remembering those that never came home.”

On the Sunday before Memorial Day, Leeds will hold its annual Memorial Day celebration on May 27 at the Veterans Memorial Park.

The commemoration will begin at 1 p.m. and will include a color guard from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8006 in Florence as well as a wreath laying ceremony and the playing of Taps. Students from Leeds Elementary School will read the Gettysburg Address.

This story was updated on May 25, 2018.Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.