Whistle Blowing

March 17, 2017 by Virginia Byrne

Dermot Sexton marked his 50th year as a volunteer for the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade with a strong blast on the ceremonial silver whistle and officially started the 257th Parade. It was an honor tinged with sadness 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. She died on January 17th, 2017.

“It’s a great honor,” Mr. Sexton said. “And I’m very proud to be chosen. I’d love it if Kathleen could be here to see it.” He put a picture of Kathleen tenderly kissing him in his jacket pocket, close to his heart, “so she’ll be with me.” The picture was taken at his 80th birthday celebration, a few months before his wife died.

At 11 a.m. sharp, at the shrill command of the whistle, the “Fighting 69th” the 69th Regiment of New York, stepped 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 followed the 69th Regiment on the specially-painted green line up Fifth Avenue.

This year’s Grand Marshal was Michael J. Dowling, a native of County Limerick, and President and CEO of Northwell Health. This year’s Parade honored Catholic Charities and the New York State Troopers, which each celebrated their 100th anniversary of helping New Yorkers in need.

Mr. Sexton, who came to New York seeking adventure as a 20-year-old in 1957, still speaks with a lilting 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 promoted to one of the Parade’s most challenging jobs, running the East Side Formation area of the Parade. As Chairman of East Side Formation, Sexton has supervised a team of a dozen workers, who each year move thousands of marchers and hundreds of bands across Madison Avenue, through traffic and onto Fifth Avenue, while keeping to a timetable that changed 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. “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 millions of 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.”


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