City prepares to celebrate St. Patrick's Day Saturday with parade, community spirit
HORNELL — It doesn't matter how much unmelted snow will still be on the ground this weekend — things will look a little greener in Hornell.
The annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, with Dr. Mario Argentieri serving as Grand Marshal, is set for 11 a.m. along Main Street in the city.
Considering how busy it will be this weekend, it's notable that the city's ever-growing celebration began in 1988 with mayor, a horse and a campaign promise.
"It started on a bet, basically," Mayor Shawn Hogan said. "I made a statement from the bench at a Common Council meeting that I'd like to start a St. Patrick's Day parade in Hornell. I said I'd like to get a lot of high school bands and stuff like that, and if I couldn't pull it off I would ride a horse myself down Main Street.
"Time passed on and then March came and a guy named Bat Lyons, who used to be one of the owners of the radio stations WHHO and WKPQ, said, 'Mr. Mayor, you said you were going to have a St. Patrick's Day parade.' I said I couldn't find any bands and he said, 'Well, you said you'd ride a horse down Main Street.' I said 'I don't have a horse' and he said 'I got you one.' A white horse shows up with a shamrock tattooed on its hind quarters and that's how it began."
Hogan said the original parade route went from the Chamber of Commerce to where Spotlight of Hornell is currently located. Fifteen participants made up the initial parade.
The rest, as they say, is history. What used to be a small celebration is now a citywide, family-focused event which draws visitors from both near and far.
"We try to promote it as a family event, as a day of celebrating the community's Irish heritage and also celebrating the rite of spring," Hogan said. "It's really grown and grown and grown. Last year, we estimated there was almost 10,000 people lining the streets. It varies from year to year depending on the weather."
It's still as unorganized as it was in 1988 — and Hogan wants to keep it that way.
"People just show up," Hogan said. "We have groups that show up from all different organizations. It's become a wonderful thing and we don't want to start organizing it because then it would get screwed up. You don't argue with success."
"This event has always been known as the 'biggest unorganized event,'" Shelly Stevens, Hornell Partners for Growth executive director, added. "It just happens. However, as the years have passed, people have started to plan for it on their own.
"For example, one family invites their family from all over to come stay for the weekend and celebrate with them, the bars and restaurants have started to offer live music, food and drink specials, etc. and over the course of the last few years, we've begun hiring buses (Hornell Area Transit) to take people from bar to bar to ensure their safety while drinking. So each year, someone else adds a plan in their own way and it enhances the event without anyone requesting them to do so."
The only thing that's changed is the date of the parade, which is held on the Saturday before St. Patrick's Day if March 17 isn't one.
"People started saying, 'Hey, we all work on St. Patrick's Day.' They let kids out of school and people who worked at the banks would come out," Hogan said. "In about the third or fourth year in we moved it to a Saturday and it's just exploded from there."
St. Patrick's Day in Hornell is sponsor-free.
"Uniquely, no one sponsors the event," Stevens said. "Although the City of Hornell will have real bagpipers come and march in our parade, that is the only 'real' sponsorship. Businesses and organizations line up with little to no notice for the parade because they've just come to expect it. No one gets notices in the mail or via the newspaper. It all just happens."
That doesn't mean businesses aren't involved with the celebration; in fact, they play a major part in it.
"For our local businesses, the Hornell St. Patrick's Day celebration is almost as big — or in some cases bigger — than Christmas," Stevens said. "This is an all day event that practically every single business takes part in. They offer specials, spend weeks, if not months, preparing for this event, and while I'm sure the profit of the day is greatly appreciated they all love to have a good time too, so you'll see entire staffs and their owners in green with hats and glasses, pins and tall green socks."
Even though St. Patrick's Day is a celebration of everything Irish, it's also a celebration of something more in Hornell — the ability of the city to continuously fight through adversity.
"This is a community that's shown a lot of resilience over the years," Hogan said. "We celebrate our diversity as a community, even though everyone's Irish on this day, we're celebrating diversity of our community and celebrating the fact that we're resilient, we're a tough group of people. This community's been through some hard times but always bounces back."
For example, Hogan noted the community's support throughout the battle for the future of healthcare in the city.
"We fought the good fight, we ran the good race," Hogan said. "That's attributable to all the good people in our region. We had close to 15,000 signatures to save our hospital, countless thousands of letters that were received in Albany. The medical community chipped in their resources to help buy the 'Save the Hospital' signs.
"It's been a tough year in that regards because we had a sense of uncertainty. Now, I think we've got some hope for the future and move forward. Being without a hospital and inpatient care would have been devastating for this community ... There's the sons and daughters of immigrants and grandchildren and granddaughters of immigrants that were raised with a different type of hard work ethic and never say die attitude. That's what we celebrate, too."
Dr. Mario Argentieri was tapped by Hogan to be the Grand Marshal for Saturday's parade.
"It only took me 93 years to become an Irishman," Argentieri said. "But seriously, as I thought about it and I thought it was initially appropriate for me to do it, I thought I would do it in honor of my Irish benefactors, my friends Dr. James and John Kelly, who were involved in my coming back to practice here.
"It would be in honor of the Irish patients I've had the distinct pleasure of helping the past 45-50 years."
Hogan picked Argentieri due to his decades of service as a physician in the area.
"He is of Italian descent — both his parents came from Italy — but he probably treated more Irish people as a physician than Irish mothers treated kids," Hogan said. "He's part of the fabric of our community. He's been a well-respected member of our community for years and years. He practiced medicine for over 50 years."
The Evening Tribune thanks Shelly Stevens, Hornell Partners for Growth executive director, for her assistance.