Tony Weisman on 50 years of celebrating patriotism and community
By TONY WEISMAN May 23, 2013 5:26PM
Updated: May 23, 2013 7:00PM
Fifty years ago, on a Memorial Day when I was 3 years old, my father Al Weisman taught me — and a small group of kids in our Lakeview neighborhood — a lifelong lesson about patriotism and community. A friend had recently given my father an American flag. But instead of just hanging it on the outside of our house, he donned a beat-up, tricornered hat and baton and led us all in a do-it-yourself parade. Carrying the flag, and accompanied by a little girl playing her violin, our ragtag group of pint-sized patriots marched around the block to honor our fallen servicemen and women. The Wellington-Oakdale-Old-Glory-Marching-Society (WOOGMS) was born.
The parade quickly caught on in our neighborhood, and the tradition has stayed pretty much the same to this day: On Memorial Day and Labor Day, shortly before 11 a.m., hundreds of people meet at the corner of Wellington and Pine Grove on foot, on bikes and in strollers. With the Jesse White Drum Corps providing a snappy cadence, we march down Sheridan, make a left onto Diversey and finish on the front lawn of St. Joseph Hospital, where staffers hand out treats for the kids to enjoy while everyone watches the thrilling acrobatics of the Jesse White Tumblers.
As a boy, it was so much more fun to march in a parade than to watch from the sidewalk. The official parade motto actually became, “Everybody marches, nobody watches.” But my father’s insights were much deeper than that. He recognized that while politics may divide us, patriotism unites us. To that end, elected officials are warmly welcomed at all WOOGMS parades, but they’re not allowed to give speeches. My father also knew that great cities like Chicago are really a vibrant ecosystem of smaller communities of people who know and care for one another. I admired him so much. So on Labor Day, 1973, when he told me that the following year it would be my turn to lead the parade, I was thrilled.
I just never imagined I’d do it without him.
On March 23, 1974, my father died unexpectedly. That following Memorial Day, I put on his tricornered hat, and our family led the WOOGMS parade for the first time without him. Despite our grief, pictures from that day show us with smiles on our faces, and I’m sure it was because the Lakeview and WOOGMS communities came out in even greater numbers that day to support us.
We’ve been growing stronger ever since. Along with many of my original WOOGMS peers, I’ve become a parent, and it’s done my heart proud to see my dad’s tricornered hat on our two sons — now adults — as they’ve led the parade over the years.
Great ideas like my father’s endure. On Monday WOOGMS will celebrate its 50th anniversary. More than 2,000 marchers will gather to honor those who have given their lives in service to our country and celebrate the enduring strength of our Chicago communities. The parade is free, and you don’t have to live in Lakeview to attend, so please join us. Just remember to wear your walking shoes because, “Everybody marches, nobody watches.”
For more information on WOOGMS, visit Facebook.com/woogms or email Tweisman@digitas.com.