The value of parades: Everybody has a role

Autumn means homecoming, and it’s easy to go home when you feel welcome.

Watching thousands of Penn State fans whoop and applaud during their homecoming parade this month helped explain why the university, despite its mountain valley location, has no problem filling its stadium, whose capacity of 107,282 is second largest in the nation.

The parade was a bright moment during a dismal Badger football road trip to State College, Pa. Think 700 miles in 11 hours to watch a 38-7 loss, eat at Arbys and Pizza Hut, then head home.

On the eve of it all, families, coeds and alums bundled up and staked out their parade viewing seats hours before the procession began. Banner after banner announced that Penn State fans had come home, from Annapolis to Wyoming.

Just two people – wearing cheesehead hats painted navy, one of the home school’s colors – walked with the Wisconsin chapter alumni banner.

The event lasted hours, and the grand marshal was Franco Harris, Pro Football Hall of Fame running back. “I just love the Penn State experience,” he told a college newspaper reporter, and that meant simply walking around on a gorgeous, brisk-but-sunny day.

It would be fraud to play Ethel Merman and belt out “I Love a Parade,’ but I almost always respect the spirit and tradition. Parades, at any time of year, acknowledge that something is worth celebrating.

Everybody seems to belong, and everybody has a role. That includes the spectators, who reinforce the sense of community and pride.

I’ve seen beds of roses in California’s Pasadena on New Year’s Day, glittery hay wagons in Cumberland (Barron County), tiaras on top of svelte models and chunky farm girls – all charming queens for a day.

Our 4-H club stuffed toilet paper into chicken wire for fireman’s picnic floats. I still look forward to seeing dozens of stoic llamas fill the width of Main Street during a slightly larger town’s parade.

It’s hard to resist the urge to grab for candy strewn along a parade route, and it is amusing to see kids get choosy about what they pick up. Cinnamon and peppermint candies don’t go over well.

It’s almost impossible to find a rutabaga at Cumberland’s Rutabaga Festival (Barron County), yet the event has gone on for 75 years and the parade lasts more than three hours. Firetrucks and festival princess from small towns up to 100 miles away get into the lineup and get to feel famous for a day.

At the early August parade for Burger Fest in Seymour (Outagamie County), the amount of candy that kids accumulate rivals trick-or-treat stash. Popsicles, bottles of water, burger coupons, Frisbees and funky burger lapel pins keep a few adults happy, too.

It is unfortunate that some communities have minimized or discarded parade traditions because of the inconvenience of blocking off streets, the lack of volunteers, general disinterest, expense. That includes the death of the Great Circus Parade, a colorful Wisconsin tradition since 1963. The last was in 2005.

I’ve lived in Madison almost 20 years and have yet to attend the UW’s homecoming parade, which starts at 6 p.m. Oct. 26. The route is small, involving Langdon, Gilman and State streets. Community attention is minimal.

Who has the longest parade, or attracts the largest crowd? No one seems to measure these things in an official way, except for the Guinness Book of World Records, whose categories get pretty obscure.

Most Fiat cars on parade? Five hundred, a record set in Italy in 2006. Horse-drawn carriages? Try 208, down the streets of Lingen, Germany, in 2004. Wenatchee, Wash., earned the title for largest parade of tow trucks – 83, during a Washington Tow Truck Association procession in 2004.

So some parades are one-of-a-kind. That likely includes the annual Hustisford (Dodge County) Toilet Bowl Parade, a New Year’s Day fundraiser for the fire department’s college scholarship program, which also involves a no-pads, no-helmets football game for the locals. It is an alternative to watching football on TV, and the tradition began in 1967.

The event’s king and queen “ride through the parade on a giant, toilet-shaped float and exchange throwing billowing rolls of toilet paper with parade goers,” the community explains online.

For more:

Wisconsin Alumni Association:, 608-262-2551.

Cumberland Rutabaga Festival: 715-822-3378.

Seymour Burger Fest:, 920-833-6053.

Hustisford Toilet Bowl Parade:, 920-349-3188.

Accompanying me at the Penn State homecoming parade was Buttons the Bear, my traveling mascot for this school year. Buttons comes from Patrice Pierce’s first grade class Mountain Bay Elementary School, Weston (Marathon County).

Buttons already has seen snow, too, from near the top of Mt. Hood, Oregon.