The first time that Geraldine Mills was in a parade on the Fourth of July was in the early ’50s, she recalls, and she was 10 years old, dressed in a blue halter top and a pair of red shorts.
“It only went down Abram Street,” said Mills, executive director of the Fielder House Museum and a lifelong Arlington resident.
Today, the tireless history buff is the grand marshal of the Arlington July Fourth parade, the 49th edition of what has become a must-see event in a changing city. Spectators have numbered in the tens of thousands in recent years.
The iconic parade binds together generations of families, neighbors and homegrown businesses now as it did back in 1965, when several community events consolidated under the banner of the Arlington 4th of July Association, an all-volunteer nonprofit that produces the parade every year.
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The parade, themed “Made in America … Celebrating Ingenuity,” begins Friday at 9 a.m. on a 2-mile route and lasts about two hours. It is dedicated to the Arlington Historical Society.
The majority of entrants have been participating in the parade for more than 20 years, spokeswoman Donna Darovich said.
“It’s always been interesting to watch,” Mills said. “It’s a good experience.”
The memories are funny, poignant and gentle.
“In 2002, the first parade after 9-11, I can tell you that from my vantage point as announcer for about 30 years, the crowds were bigger than I had ever seen, and there was a constant swell of cheers and applause for almost every entry,” said Darovich. “I had never heard so many in the crowd sing the national anthem at the start of the parade.”
Sometimes it’s a hometown moment that brings the most emotion.
“I get all excited and choked up when the Arlington High band comes by,” said Mills. “My son likes it when the Sam Houston band comes by. It’s true America.”
Bob Callas is the parade’s route coordinator, shepherding entries out of the “South 40” staging lot at the University of Texas at Arlington to get the parade underway. His job ends when the last entry returns to the lot.
Callas’ favorite parade experience was 1995, the year that Nolan Ryan rode at the front of the parade with then-Gov. George W. Bush. Bush was grand marshal, and the Rangers were hosting the All-Star Game for the first time.
“That’s always the first car back in the lot,” said Callas. “Nolan got out and wanted to ride with me in a golf cart back down the parade route so he could view the entire parade. ‘I didn’t get to see any of it up there,’ he said.”
Jo Johnston was president of the parade association in Texas’ sesquicentennial year of 1986, when the parade theme was “Lone Star, Brightest of Them All.” It turned out that Texas minds think alike.
“I recall that there were quite a lot of Alamos, on every float,” she said.
The association now includes tips on decorating floats and vehicles on its Facebook page, to head off a repeat.
“We try to pick themes that are general enough to generate a wide range of ideas among entrants,” Darovich said.
One family’s story
Bob Callas and his daughter, son, two brothers, nephew and father have served as parade volunteers together over the past couple of decades.
“I’ve really seen it change since 1968,” Callas said. “It started out as a neighborhood-type parade: a lot of people on bicycles and a lot of neighborhood associations.
“Now, the crowd has gotten really big; we’re the third-largest parade in the U.S. and the No. 1 largest in Texas,” said Callas. “But we’re still Arlington’s parade.”
Callas’ first parade was as a member of the Sam Houston High band, Class of 1968. His law enforcement career took him to the Houston area until he retired as a police chief in Brazoria County.
“Even those years away, we still came back to Arlington for the Fourth of July parade every year because it was just in our blood,” he said.
J.D. Callas, the 85-year-old family patriarch, retired from his parade duties last year and rode in style in one of the dignitary cars.
The parade is a generational thing for a lot of families like the Callases.
“One of the neat things is, we have families like the Thomas family — they camp out the night before,” Callas said. “When the parade starts the next day, they’re right there in their little spot.”
Thanks to UT Arlington, more families can stake out perennial spots along the route.
“Last year was really amazing because UTA had finished all that landscaping on Center Street,” Callas said. “All of a sudden, that is the place to go. But if they’re going to do that, they need to come out early.”
The parade is as much vintage Arlington as it is Americana, parade insiders agree.
“The wonderful thing is when you see the children, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and then they come back grown with their own kids,” summed up Jo Johnston. “We are a big city, and yet we’re still a small community of people who care.”