Resident Reflections: Westport's 'parade master' still steps lively
Published 4:50 pm, Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Bill Vornkahl, 80, loves a parade. Growing up on Post Road East, and playing hide and seek in evergreen trees that still stand near the Mitchell's store, Vornkahl looked forward to the town's annual Memorial Day parade. As an adult, he assumed the helm of the townwide celebration and has acted as chairman of the parade for 41 years.
Dubbed the "Parade Master" by Westport political figure Betty Lou Cummings and referred to as "Mr. Parade" by countless others in the community, Vornkahl has also organized the Westport Sons of Italy's Festival Italiano Kick-off Parade in Saugatuck for 26 years. To commemorate his efforts, Vornkahl was appointed grand marshal of both parades.
Married to Linnea, Vornkahl is the father of four -- Bill, Jr., Susan, Ed and Diane -- and he has seven grandchildren. Since 1961, he and Linnea have lived in the home on Cross Highway that he purchased for $7,300. ("They wanted $7,500 for the property and I responded, `How come it's so much?' " Vornkahl recalled.)
Vornkahl worked in banking 40 years -- 29 of those years were at the Westport Bank and Trust, formerly located in the heart of downtown Westport. He retired in 1987, but has continued to take on leadership roles in numerous community service projects.
Vornkahl's involvement in town veterans' affairs segued into his coordinating Westport's two major parade celebrations. A proud patriot, Vornkahl served in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1954 during the Korean War era. For his outstanding volunteerism, Vornkahl has received awards from the Westport Veterans Council and the American Legion Post 63. He has also been recognized by the American Red Cross and awarded its Unsung Hero Award. And, although he is no longer an active participant, Vornkahl has been a member of the Westport Volunteer Fire Corps.
For example, Vornkahl pointed out that he initiated the change in its route from ending at Jesup Green to flowing into Parking Harding Plaza. Memorial Day services are now held at the Doughboy monument. "One of our bands missed its next commitment that year," Vornkahl said. "This was terrible because Memorial Day is one of the times when the bands could play at a few different parades and make some good money."
Following are Vornkahl's observations on parades and other community events:
Planning a Parade: "I've already had a meeting with the first selectman about road closings for next year's Memorial Day parade. In December I'll call the bands and say, "Are you coming back?" Sometimes they will say, "Bill, we've been waiting for your call." If you're too late, you won't get them.
The parade starts on time: Everyone knows that when it's 9 a.m., the Memorial Day Parade starts. One year Gov. Lowell Weicker was planning to be in the parade, but he hadn't arrived yet. They said, "You're not going to start without him, are you?" I did. He caught up to it, though.
An honorary Italian: John LaBarca (former WMMM radio personality and founder of "The Italian Houseparty" radio show) called me and told me that they wanted me to be grand marshal of the Festival Italiano Parade. "Billy, we're going to make you an honorary Italian," he said.
Having some fun: Julie and Jack Tolan were the first grand marshals of the Festival Italiano Parade. We always have the past grand marshals ride in beautiful antique cars each year. Everytime I saw Julie, she would ask me if I had a nice car for her to ride in. So, I told Julie, who I've known for years, that I was going to do something a little special for her. As we were getting everyone organized for the parade, I brought out an old tricycle and put it in front of her. "Here's your vehicle," I told her. "What?" she replied. We had some fun together.
Giving away flags: We always order grave flags for all of the town's veterans. About nine years ago, I also started purchasing flags for the Republican Women to sell and carry at the Memorial Day parade. I also help with the American Legion's flag-burning ceremony. We do this about every other year.
Love of country: I'm proud of the fact that I've been in all 50 states in America. I've actually driven in 49 of the 50, but I didn't drive in Alaska. I did most of my foreign traveling while I was in the service. There's so much to see in the United States, and we like visiting the West most of all. It's pretty out there, but we like coming back to Westport. This is our hometown.
A patriotic memory: I loved visiting Mount Rushmore. They first showed a movie about how they chipped away and carved out the faces of the presidents. Then they threw on the lights and the faces were lit up as they played the National Anthem. That was really something."