by Gene Marrano
One of the largest parades of its kind in the southeast, Roanoke’s 22nd annual Saint Patrick’s Day parade last Saturday made everyone watching or participating seem just a wee bit Irish. Retired Roanoke City police officer Bryan Lawrence, partially paralyzed when attacked on a call several years ago, served as the honorary grand marshal. Lawrence is now a minister in the area.
U.S. Senator Mark Warner and 6th District Congressman Bob Goodlatte walked in the parade down Jefferson and Campbell, as did Mayor David Bowers and other members of Roanoke City Council. There were assorted beauty queens, scout troops and floats depicting everything from those supporting the Fair Tax to “Vikings of the Roanoke Valley.”
World War II veterans, pink poodles, baton twirling troupes, the Star City Roller Girls, the Patrick Henry High School Jr. Air Force ROTC firefighters and vintage cars were also part of the mix on a sunny, blue-sky day.
Parrott Heads of the Blue Ridge boasted one of the biggest and most imaginative floats; there were also lots of Kazim clowns and the “Dancing Dorothys” on hand, promoting an upcoming Wizard of Oz show at the Roanoke Civic Center. The crowd was estimated at more than 10,000; afterwards many stayed for an all-day Celtic Festival also held downtown.
Jersey Transplant Helped Get Parade Off The Ground
A retired transplant from New Jersey was a driving force behind Roanoke’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade when it first got off the ground 22 years ago.
Ray Donnelly, who will be 84 next week (he now resides in a nursing home), asked about a St. Patrick’s Day parade and found out there was none. That’s when he went to work, with the help of the late Laban Johnson, a co-host at the time on cable TV’s Cookin’ Cheap program.
“He ran it for six years and when [it became a bigger event] the city took it over,” says Jean Donnelly, Ray’s wife. The couple went downtown looking for a parade a year after moving here, “and there was nothing.” Told that people here “didn’t like parades,” the Donnellys persevered, encouraged by Roanoke Mayor David Bowers.
“It was a lot of work getting people [to participate] and it just kept growing,” said Jean Donnelly.
This year’s parade lasted almost two hours and was attended by an estimated 10,000 or more. Ray Donnelly used to travel the world when he ran businesses in New York City; the couple, originally from upstate New York, moved here to be close to family. That fortuitous decision helped the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Roanoke get off the ground more than two decades ago.