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City Folk

Master of the Parade

Tom Kerr stood up to Schaefer and brought the Mayor’s Christmas Parade to Hampden, where it’s been held for the last 40 years

Photo: Randall A. Gornowich, License: N/A

Randall A. Gornowich

Soft-spoken Tom Kerr is not exactly a chatty chap. And on this day—sweet Jesus, especially on this day—a fits-and-starts conversation is challenged by the cacophony from dozens of teenagers beating drums. There’s also a pack of Harley riders jawing it around their rumbling beasts and a clutch of Girl Scouts giggling in reindeer antler hats. More a visual distraction than an aural one, a platoon of roller derby girls weaves about in fishnets and spandex. A sibilant background note sounds, courtesy of an aged steam calliope wheezing to life.

We’re standing on Falls Road near Poly. Kerr wears a bright-red University of Maryland jacket and has tufts of silver hair splaying out from beneath a white ball cap reading, “Mayor’s Christmas Parade.”

So now the noise should make sense. This is the first Sunday in December and the staging area for the 40th running of the longest, loudest, most footloose celebration that’s ever maneuvered its way along a city street. More than 150 marching ensembles are on hand—brass bands, Mummers, scores of those street-dancin’ drumlines. Santa Claus, of course, but also a hodgepodge of costumed curiosities, from the so-called Underdog Lady to a pudgy Lone Ranger to a creepy duo of humanoid sock monkeys. And Shriners. You’ll see them on motorized flying carpets, mini-trucks, three-wheelers—the full monty. The most old men in felt fezzes this side of a Moroccan retirement home.

Kerr’s cap identifies him as one of the organizers of this yuletide madness, but he’s more than that. He’s the organizer, the parade chairman, the retired plumber, and erstwhile head of the Hampden Business Association who got a phone call 40-odd years ago that went something like this: “Tom, it’s Mayor Schaefer here. How would you like to run a parade?”

“He wanted to have it downtown, but I said no,” Kerr recalls of the fateful conversation. “If he wanted us to run it, I told him we were going to have it in Hampden.”

Schaefer was likely looking for a way to replace the defunct Thanksgiving parade the city once ran. But in a rare case of acquiescence, the “Do It Now” mayor did as he was told and His and Her Honors have headed up to Hampden for the parade ever since. (Though—and don’t tell Bill O’Reilly—in the debut year, it was held in November and The Sun called it a “Holiday Parade.”)

Hampden in 1973 was known for its three wine bars. No, wait. That’s not right. This was the era of five-and-dimes and a working movie theater where there’s now a yoga studio. This was also the year the Mount Vernon Mill fell silent, the last mill to shut down and the end of the line for more than 100 years of textile work in the Jones Falls valley.

Kerr is a lifelong resident of Medfield (what some playfully call Hampden’s suburb) and the fourth generation to live up this way. He says he recently addressed a meeting of the current Hampden Village Merchants Association and that there was not a single business he recognized from his day. But he’s fine with that. While not above some misty-eyed nostalgia for the 25-cent matinees at the Avenue’s former pair of picture houses, he’s clear-eyed about what’s happening along 36th Street today: “The changes are all for the better,” he says “The professionals moving in and the new businesses are a good thing.”

In a sense, the parade has been a constant amid the socioeconomic shifting—a beloved street party connecting mill-era Hampden with wine-bar Hampden. And today’s looks to be a doozy, with extra excitement in the air. For one thing, it’s crazy warm for December. Close to the 60s. Santa is in town, and so too are the Steelers. Indeed, the parade’s start time was moved up an hour to accommodate the 4:30 P.M. kickoff. Huge crowds line the route, all decked out in red and green . . . and purple.

“This is the easy part for me today,” Kerr says, surveying the throngs. “I’m only here in case somebody has a problem.” His parade labors began in the spring and kicked into high gear in August. The hardest task? “Raising all the money,” he says without missing a beat. (It takes over 30 grand to put this moving bash together.) Don’t ask him to pick a favorite parade out of the past four decades. “They all blend together now,” he admits. “We had some where it was so cold and the weather so bad that hardly nobody showed up, but we never cancelled it.”

Today, the weather gods are smiling and so is veteran City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who briefly pulls Kerr over to ask which convertible she’s riding in. Then a black SUV rolls up, which can only mean the parade’s namesake has arrived. Soon enough, Mayor Rawlings-Blake is chatting with the man in the Terps jacket.

Kerr is a calm presence amid this chaos. But for how much longer? He says he hopes this is his last year at the parade’s helm. “I need to get some people to help me instead of me doing everything,” he says. “Nobody seems to want to take over the responsibility for the whole thing.” A meeting of parade boosters has been set for February to figure out how to take a lot of the holly, jolly load off Kerr’s shoulders.

There are a times, he admits, when he’s cursed Willie Don for dialing him up all those years ago. (Probably on steamy summer days when he was forced to think about Christmas, or during a crap-weather parade, when a soggy, shivering ensemble marched along empty sidewalks). But the parade has been a constant in his life as well. And a good one. “The best thing about these past 40 years?” he ponders. “I met a heck of a lot of people working on the parade, and they’ve all become my friends.”

There’s nothing bah-humbug about that.

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