BY SAM RAPPAPORT
The Little Neck-Douglaston Memorial Day Parade, which was first launched in 1927, is billed as the largest march of its kind in the nation. In the months leading up to the parade, a small, tireless group of volunteers sacrifice a significant portion of their lives to make it all happen.
Victor Mimoni, the parade’s director of communications, spoke to the Queens Tribune just days before this year’s parade.
“We’re all running on fumes by this time,” he said. “It’s really a small group of volunteers. We’re all just a bunch of local yokels, basically.”
Many of the parade’s organizers, Mimoni said, are residents of the neighborhood—the close-knit, small-town communities of Little Neck and Douglaston.
According to census data, the combined population of Little Neck and Douglaston is approximately 28,000.
“There are people who have been marching in this parade since they were children,” Mimoni said.
It is this distinct small-town/big-city dynamic that many of the parade’s organizers point to to explain how the nation’s largest Memorial Day parade made its home in northeastern Queens.
“We have the support of the area, and we have a great staging area,” said Karen Dinegar, the parade’s director of operations. “Little Neck and Douglaston have always been civic-minded; there are so many community groups here. I just feel that this has been a place of civic involvement.”
The Little Neck-Douglaston Parade route is longer than its counterparts in both Chicago and Washington, D.C. Even more impressive is the fact that while the Chicago parade is organized by the mayor’s office and the D.C. parade is put on by a production company, the Little Neck-Douglaston Parade is the result of a dedicated group of unpaid locals.
There are 100 or so volunteers who work the day of the parade, and there is the small committee of approximately 15 people who plan it year round.
“I probably put too many hours in,” Dinegar said. “Thank goodness I’m self-employed. It’s definitely like having a second job. But it’s more than that. It’s such a big part of our life. It’s like another being in our lives. We talk about it year round.”
The nitty gritty of the planning process begins in October, Dinegar said.
“At that time, we develop a theme for the following year. We send in our applications to the government agencies that have units that can support us: rifle teams for the opening ceremony, military bands, navy bands—those all take a long time to process,” Dinegar said. “Then, we start searching for honorees, a grand marshal. We make a veterans brunch plan, and in the early spring we start getting ready for our art and essay contest.”
This is where Joseph Dubowski comes in. He has been volunteering with the Little Neck-Douglaston Parade for 30 years. His role is to spearhead the art and essay contest. He travels to elementary, middle and high schools around Queens and asks classrooms of students to describe in an essay or illustrate in a piece of artwork their notion of what Memorial Day is all about.
The top three contenders in each age group march in the Memorial Day parade.
“There is a tremendous amount of preparation that goes into all of this,” said Dubowski, who is a practicing attorney with an office in Little Neck. “The parade committee is a huge project. They have to get the permits, insurance, line up all the marching units, confirm they’re coming, stay in touch with the police department. Thank God there’s enough people to go around to do this stuff.”
But there will be one fewer person to do all this legwork next year. Dinegar is stepping down as director of operations.
“I have no idea how I’ll choose someone to replace me,” Dinegar said. “This takes a lot of dedication.”
Dinegar assumed her position as chief of the parade five years ago. At the time, she said, it appeared that the parade might be discontinued. Since then, the parade has been thriving, but its support network remains precarious.
“None of us are getting younger,” Dinegar said. “Most of the board members are in their 70s. It’s a lot. We definitely need more active people to just take a little piece of it.”
Dinegar stopped just short of cynicism.
“It’s not hanging by a thread, but we could also use thread,” she said. “There’s a small amount of people doing an enormous amount of work. So, the loss of one person has a major effect.”
That being said, she’s going out on a strong note. Dinegar said that this year’s parade was the best one yet.
“I thought this was the best year ever,” she said. “People were missing, extra people showed up, but it was the best parade. The vibe on the street was really positive. The weather was fine. I enjoyed myself immensely. I was beaming; I was really proud. It was a great day for me.”
On Wednesday, the organizing committee gathered to discuss the ups and downs of the parade. They’re already looking for ways to improve the event for next year.
The largest obstacle that the organizing committee will have to face in the coming months is finding someone to replace Dinegar at the helm of operations.
“This is the biggest thing our town does,” Dinegar said. “It’s a really small town, and we manage to do this one thing really well. I hope there’s someone devoted as much as I am.”
Reach reporter Sam Rappaport via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (718) 357-7400, ext. 123.