Dermot Sexton will mark his 50th year as a volunteer for the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade by blowing the ceremonial silver whistle which officially starts the 257th Parade. It will be a bittersweet honor for Sexton, a native of Nurney, in County Kildare. For the first time, his beloved wife of 55 years, Kathleen Garvin Sexton, won’t be by his side to share the honor. She died on January 17th, 2017, after living with cancer for 32 years.
“I hope I can pull it off,” he said. “I’m praying to Kathleen to help me.”
At 11 a.m. sharp, when Sexton blows the whistle, the “Fighting 69th” the 69th Regiment of New York, will step off from 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, first in the line of march, its traditional place of honor at every New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade since 1853. More than 200,000 marchers are expected to follow the 69th Regiment up Fifth Avenue’s green line
This year’s Grand Marshal is Michael J. Dowling, a native of County Limerick, and President and CEO of Northwell Health. This year’s Parade honors Catholic Charities and the New York State Troopers, which are both celebrating their 100th anniversary of helping New Yorkers in need.
Mr. Sexton, who came to New York on a lark as a 20-year-old in 1957, still speaks with a beguiling Irish brogue. He had planned to return to Ireland, but “went on the best blind date of my life,” with Kathleen Garvin, from Carratigue, County Mayo and married her. They had two children and six grandchildren. In 1967, his brother-in-law, Frank McGreal Sr., brought him to work in the Parade. “I was running around like a crazy man, it was years before they even knew my name,” he recalled, “but when you work hard, they don’t let you go.”
In 1992, Sexton, who lives in Hawthorne, N.Y., was given one of the Parade’s most challenging jobs, running the East Side Formation area of the Parade. As Chairman of East Side Formation, Sexton supervises a team of a dozen workers, who are responsible for moving thousands of marchers and hundreds of bands across Madison Avenue, through traffic and onto Fifth Avenue, while trying to keep to a timetable that changes each year. It is an annual endurance contest between Manhattan traffic and marchers. A large group of marchers with a band can easily be split in half by a police officer inexperienced in handling traffic and large crowds, causing delays, the dreaded “gaps” in the Parade.
“He’s the grand old man,” said Reilly J. Dundon, the Chairman of West Side Formation. “Dermot brings an air of stability to the scene. There isn’t anything he hasn’t seen before, from near-riots in the 1970’s, to extremes in weather, like the snow and ice storm that struck mid-Parade in 2003.”
When asked which of the 50 Parades was the most memorable, Sexton’s answer was swift. “It was the 2002 parade, just six months after 9/11.” The Parade had been dedicated to the “Heroes of 9/11” and at noon, the entire Parade halted and its 300,000 marchers and three million spectators on Fifth Avenue turned south to face lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers had stood, and observed two minutes of silence. “It was unbelievable, how they just stopped New York City and it was so quiet.” Sexton recalled. “I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck.”
The Parade will be broadcast live on WNBC-TV 4, Friday, March 17.