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Monday, May 23, 2016

Fort Thomas Independence Day Parade Is a Beloved Tradition

Fort Thomas Independence Day Parade, 2015.

Friday evening, July 1, Sally Brewer's family will set up lawn chairs in front of Dobbling Funeral Home—just as they've done since the late 1960s or early 1970s (no one is quite sure when)—in preparation for this year's Fort Thomas Independence Day Parade, organized by the Campbell County YMCA and a dedicated group of citizens, Saturday, July 2.

"Our family has an unbroken chain of attendance to the Fort Thomas Fourth of July parade that goes back many years," Brewer says.

They are not alone.

For years Fort Thomas residents have planned their summers around the Independence Day parade, not wanting to miss the shiny firetrucks and marching band, the lawn chair brigade and the dance routines, the waving politicians and banner-carrying scout troops, the candy throwing (and collecting), and all those little flags on wooden sticks held by families decked out in red, white and blue, eager for the Tower Park festivities and evening fireworks—quintessential Americana.

It's a tradition that dates back to when most residents agree the first Independence Day Parade took place—1967, the centennial celebration.

The children and grandchildren of Ken and Marie Shields gathered in front of Dobbling Funeral Home for the parade, 2012.

"When the grandchildren were little my mom made 16 red, white and blue bags for them to use for parade candies," Brewer says. For many years after the parade Brewer's family would head straight to Tower Park for festivities, including live music by Dan and Gail Crowe. They would always seem to snag picnic tables under the shelter, and Judy and John Messmer, as well as Tootie and extended family, would join them, Brewer says.

Brewer's parents, Ken and Marie Shields, moved to Fort Thomas in 1965, the year they were married. Ken coached and taught at the former St. Thomas High School, then at Highlands High School from 1975 to 1988, and then at Northern Kentucky University from 1988 to 2004. Marie taught with Fort Thomas Independent Schools for 28 years. They raised their five children in Fort Thomas, and all five children—and 16 grandchildren—still live in the city.

"The parade is a great tradition for us," Marie Shields says. "[It] keeps getting bigger and better, as well as longer in duration each year." She remembers when there was more live music—a bigger high school band and guest bands—and less candy. "A candy treat now is very commonplace," Marie Shields says. "Not so in the early years." 

Brewer's sister, Dawn Hils, remembers walking the parade with her softball teams and decorating floats as a Highlands High School cheerleader. "Major park festivities were big in the 1980s," Hills says. "They'd have singing and dancing on the tennis courts and even a beauty pageant near the Mess Hall." Today Hils has a tradition of getting a picture of her son, Abe, with Abe Lincoln (Bob Sweeney) each year.

Ken and Marie Shields, Grand Marshals in 1997, with Don Brindle driving.

"We were especially honored one time as a family when my parents, Ken and Marie Shields, were Grand Marshals in 1997," Brewer says. "They rode on the back end of a convertible owned by Gary Devoto." Then again in 2006, the Ken Shields Family were Grand Marshals.

The entire Ken-Marie Shields Family was named Grand Marshals in 2006. In the picture above, Ken and Marie's son, Kenney Shields, is driving. 

These days, the Shields, their five adult children and spouses (including the Hils and the Brewers), and their 16 grandchildren gather to watch the parade together, as well as some aunts, uncles, in-laws and cousins.

"I love to see so many friends, neighbors and former classmates as I stroll the avenue toward our spot at the start of the parade," Brewer says. "Everyone is excited for the summer celebration and the Fort Thomas tradition honoring America." 

Brewer says her family has moved vacation dates and shortened travel time in order to be home for the parade. Last summer the entire family of 28 went on a trip to Michigan for Ken and Marie Shields' 50th wedding anniversary. "I made sure that the trip was scheduled so that the end date would put us home in time for the parade," Marie Shields says. "Tradition!" 

Brewer says it's an honor and pleasure to applaud school board members and community leaders as they march. "The bands, music and performing groups are always a hit with the kids, and we love shouting out to friends we know as they come into view," Brewer says.

Laina Parsons' uncle and cousin riding upside-down bikes in the Fort Thomas Independence Day parade in the mid-1990s.

Fort Thomas resident Laina Parsons says her family has been watching the parade together for generations and they've all walked it many times. "One fond memory I have of the parade is when my uncle, Jack Brogan, made upside-down bicycles for himself, and my younger sister and cousins to ride in the parade," Parsons says. "He was a veteran and very patriotic. He was proud to ride in the parade with his family. In 2002 he passed away in a car accident. That year we had shirts made to commemorate him and wore them in the parade." 

Laina Parsons (right) along with her grandmother and cousin at Tower Park immediately following the parade, 1990.

Parsons says while the city has been steadfast with the parade since its inception, the festivities at Tower Park halted in the late 1990s, and started up again in the early 2000s. "My family always made a day out of going to the parade and the festival, so I remember being disappointed when the festival stopped and glad to see it return years later," she says.

For many years now Fort Thomas has benefitted from a both a parade and Tower Park festivities. What many people don't realize is that the parade is organized by the Campbell County YMCA with the help of a dedicated parade planning committee. Together they obtain entries and proclamations, and organize the line up. The $35 float registration fee goes into the YMCA's annual support campaign, which directly benefits the community.
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"The Y is all about community," says Todd Hensel, Member Experience Director of the Campbell County YMCA. "There is a rich history there with the parade. We get a great turnout for the parade every single year. It's definitely something that the city looks forward to and the Y's goal, specifically, is to provide anything [the community is looking for] so we just feel that it's important to continue that tradition.

Campbell County Sheriff Mike Jansen, who has been on the parade committee since 2005, says the parade is important for many reasons, including community pride, the ability to honor citizens for their lifelong achievements and dedication to the city and citizens becoming more involved in their own causes by participating in the parade. "[It's] just a fun time for kids and adults alike," Jansen says. "The city comes out in numbers as one to just enjoy 1-1/2 hours together and smile together." 

Fort Thomas resident Fred Otto, who considers himself a citizen activist, has been on the parade committee for several years. Otto remembers the city's first Independence Day parade during the centennial celebration—he was in junior high school. "It's always been really a privilege to work to get this parade going," Otto says. "We have such great community participation from different groups in the community to get it done." Otto also adds that the parade serves as a great way to showcase what our city has to offer.

Fort Thomas resident Jim Trauth has been on the parade committee for eight years. "It's always been one of Fort Thomas's biggest events," Trauth says. "The whole community seems to rally around it and comes out. ... I'm a lifelong resident of Fort Thomas and as far as I can remember it's always been a big deal—having the parade and the party at the park." Trauth also remembers participating in the first parade. He still owns a bow tie the city passed out—one tab says "Fort Thomas" and the other says "1867-1967."

This year's theme is "Honoring Our First Responders" Past and Present" and Casey Kilgore has been named Grand Marshal. Parade entries, which can be obtained at the Campbell County YMCA, are due June 18th. And in the meantime, consider what else the YMCA has to offer: four-month summer family memberships for $329 (individual memberships are $229); week-long summer day camps and teen camps with themes such as Artful Antics, CSI, Sports Extravaganza and Space is the Place (registration is accepted the week before any camp, as long as there's space available); access to the outdoor pool starting this weekend, which now includes a climbing wall. 

Campbell County YMCA now has an climbing wall for use with its pools.
Also consider participating in the Campbell County YMCA's Firecracker 5K (and one-mile Kids Fun Run) Saturday, July 2. Brewer's husband, Jay, participates every year, usually setting out the family's lawn chairs in front of Dobbling Funeral Home on his way to the race. For many Fort Thomas residents, the Firecracker 5K is a great way to start off the city's holiday traditions. 

 Laina Parsons and her family attend the parade every year. The top picture includes her children, sister, niece and cousin in 2009. The bottom picture is a recreation of the top picture, five years later.

"Even when my grandparents were elderly, they still wanted us to take them to the parade every year, which of course we all loved," Parsons says. "It was a tradition for me as a child and has become a tradition for my children as well. I'm sure many other families throughout the city have similar traditions and fond memories of the parade as well. The parade represents the strong family and community culture in the city." 

And for Marie Shields, the parade represents not only a love of a Fort Thomas, but a love of our nation. "The jolt of patriotism that the parade gives us is so important to instill in all of us and remind us that we are so fortunate to live in a free country and proud to be Americans," she says.

Editor's Note: This year the YMCA is celebrating its 50th anniversary. They are seeking stories and pictures from the community to share during its celebration this fall. Send them to Todd Hensel at

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