New York state’s governor and the city’s mayor had officially canceled the St. Patrick's Day Parade because of the coronavirus, but both quietly gave their blessing for a group of less than 50 marchers so as not to interrupt a 258-year tradition.
So, just after dawn on a rainy March 17, two dozen soldiers, parade officials and others assembled in Manhattan at the armory of the 69th Infantry Regiment. The fabled “Fighting 69th” traditionally leads the parade and the soldiers first conducted a ritual regimental toast, shared via Skype by comrades who are deployed overseas.
In another tradition, the start of the parade was signaled by a whistleblower of the most literal kind. But for the first time the honor was bestowed on a woman, Patti Ann McDonald.
She is the widow of NYPD Det. Steven McDonald, who was shot and paralyzed from the neck down by a 15-year-old in Central Park in 1986. She was pregnant at the time with their first and only child. Steven surprised everybody except those who knew him when he publicly forgave his assailant at the baptism of their first and only child.
Over the years that followed and up until his death in 2017, Steven had drawn the biggest cheers along the parade route. Patti Ann did not hesitate when she got the call asking if she wanted to be among the few to help the parade keep a perfect record older than the U.S. Constitution.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding?’” she told The Daily Beast. “Steven would have been there in a heartbeat.”
Just before 7 a.m., Patti stood ready with a white police whistle in her green gloved hand.
“Give me a countdown,” she said.
“All right, I will give you a countdown,” an officer of the Fighting 69th said. “Ready?”
“Three, two, one…”
She raised the whistle to her lips and gave it a good, loud trill, breaking one tradition while signaling the continuation of another. She was joined by her son, Conor, now fully grown and an NYPD sergeant. They brought with them Steven’s spirit, which was to continue on and retain the best part of yourself, no matter what.
“Steven should have been grand marshal of the parade, anyway,” Sean Lane, chairman of the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade Board, said.
And that spirit made the 259th parade just the right procession in this time of the coronavirus. The rain made it all the more a perfect statement of persistence.
“It’s a great day for umbrellas!” somebody called out.
The color guard was present, as were a dozen soldiers and representatives of the parade board and the parade committee. And of course there was Joe Brady, the bagpiper.
“Every time we need him, Joe always shows up,” Lane said.
Everybody maintained the recommended social distance, and the group was smaller than the restriction for gatherings, which is to say 245,950 fewer than the usual number of participants. But they were there. They drew cheers from construction workers and a scattering of others who were out in a city made spooky by the viral threat.
“Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!”
“Nothing will keep the Irish down!”
A priest was waiting outside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to bless the procession as it continued on up to the usual ending point.
“Just to do the full route,” Lane said.
The tradition was saved. The city and nation continued the wait to see who will be lost.