Veterans lead Maple Leaf Festival parade
A last minute addition to this year's Maple Leaf Festival parade brought even more meaning to the parade's theme of "Hometown Heroes."
Clarence Rusk, age 103 and a World War I veteran, joined other Baldwin City veterans to serve as the grand marshals of Saturday's parade.
"My dad just had a blast," said Nancyelaine Anderson, Rusk's daughter from Minnesota. Anderson drove her father in the parade in a convertible. "And the people in the crowd were wonderful. I could see people as they read the sign that he was a World War I veteran stand up and applaud for him."
Rusk recently moved into Baldwin Care Center after living in Lawrence for 48 years. Anderson is trying to find out if he is the oldest living veteran of the first World War.
"Nobody seems to have any record," she said. "He's got to be getting darn close to being the oldest or the last one."
Rusk who was born in Talala Indian territory before Oklahoma became a state was drafted into service in 1918 at the age of 21. Hours before he was scheduled to get on a ship that would take him to the war, the armistice was signed and he could go home.
It is one of many stories he still tells.
"He's sharp as a tack," Anderson said. "He is chuck full of stories, and they are true."
Rusk and a friend drove on mud roads from Kansas City to St. Louis to watch Charles Lindbergh return home from Paris. He took a date to an opera starring famed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. He was a bachelor until the age of 35, and still was married for 62 years.
"I did not even know my father had heard Caruso," said Anderson, who interviewed her dad a few years ago to learn more about his life.
Rusk worked until the age of 82 as a operating engineer at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. And he is the oldest living retiree of City Service Gas Company, a job he retired from in 1962.
The parade will be the veteran's latest tale to tell.
There were plenty of veteran participants in Saturday's parade. Baldwin City resident Danny McMillen was among them serving his 21st year as Elmo the Clown.
It's an act he started after he participated in the parade for several years with his children walking with scout groups or other organizations as a parent.
"I have always wanted to be a clown after seeing the big circuses with my dad," said McMillen, who is inspired by the great clowns of history and the great clowns of today. "So I started developing my character."
McMillen estimates he has played Elmo in more than 300 parades between Wichita and the eastern state line of Kansas with most of those appearances in the 1980s. McMillen has also handed out smiles at numerous events for children, often accompanied by his wife Becky, who joined in the act as the "ring master." Together they were the Rinkiest Dinkiest Wandering Circus.
McMillen eased his parade schedule in 1992, but kept appearing in the Maple Leaf Festival parade. He said he is starting to see his third generation of Elmo fans.
"I have kept up the Maple Leaf parade, because it's tradition," McMillen said.
Elmo has changed in 21 years. McMillen used to wear a wig, but McMillen has simplified Elmo's appearance over the years.
"It makes you look more gentle to children, not so scary," McMillen said.
McMillen had thought about hanging up his clown shoes after this year's parade where he poked fun at the presidential election with a sign that said "Elmo for president, I will cut your taxes and put it in a locked box." But the parade changed his mind.
"After going to the parade this year, and all the kids were calling Elmo, I can't ever let them down," McMillen said. "The pay is really good when you hear people happy."
The more the merrier
Another 21-year veteran of the Maple Leaf Festival is Ron Nelson, who serves as the announcer of the parade and during the rest of the festival with the help of his wife, Eileen, and mother-in-law, Ruth Kinney.
Nelson said the crowd at parade time was the biggest ever.
"The best estimate is big," Nelson said. "The crowd after the parade, when people are standing shoulder to shoulder, usually lasts about an hour. This year it lasted about 2 1/2 hours."
The bigger crowd which he estimates to have been between 30,000-35,000 on Saturday brought new challenges. The number of lost children brought to the announcer's stand was more than ever, and Nelson plans to be more prepared for that next year by meeting with the Maple Leaf Festival Committee and the Baldwin City Police Department before next year's festival.
There were some more pleasant new challenges as well. In addition to various items vendors donate as give-away items, Nelson also was asked to find homes for three puppies.
"We never know what to expect," Nelson said. "That is what makes the festival what it is."
A ray of light
Perhaps one of the longest and most inconsistent veterans of the Maple Leaf Festival the sun made a brief and welcome appearance on Saturday during the parade.
Star Novak, Maple Leaf Festival publicity coordinator, said the assurance of dry weather on Saturday might have boosted attendance that day.
"I wonder if the crowd was so huge on Saturday because of the threat of rain on Sunday," Novak said. "The crowd was huge. People kept coming into town all day."