New York Irish celebrate the departing Chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day parade Dr. John Lahey who stepped into the lion’s den and has changed the celebration forever.
We Irish do not celebrate our heroes enough. We’d walk three miles to a funeral but would not cross the road to congratulate someone as Brendan Behan remarked.
Thankfully that is not always the case. Attorney Brian O’Dwyer and radio host Adrian Flannelly, a dynamic duo, organized an event last week in New York to make sure a relatively unsung hero in our midst was acknowledged.
It was so uplifting to be present at the University Club in Midtown last week at a farewell event for Quinnipiac University President Dr. John Lahey, who is also stepping down as chairman of the board of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade.
When the history of this Irish American era is written Lahey will be seen as a key player. He cauterized the running sore that was the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City by orchestrating the admission of gay marching groups, and he established a Great Hunger Institute and museum at Quinnipiac which will stand the test of ages as a focal point for anyone interested in the catastrophic event which created Irish America.
In between he created an incredibly successful university, a mere commuter school in Connecticut with 1,900 students when he took over, now an East Coast powerhouse with 10,000 students.
Lahey is widely credited with elevating the university’s national presence, building a top-notch medical school and gaining the college a national reputation including overseeing the establishment of the now indispensable Quinnipiac University poll.
If the purpose in life is to leave things a bit better than when you found them then Lahey fits that bill. Actually, he left things a lot better.
He stepped into the lion’s den when taking over the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade with its vicious infighting, financial issues, exclusion of gays and contempt for the real world.
Lahey changed the march forever. He leaves behind a superb board, chaired by businessman Sean Lane, which will see out his vision.
Lahey has been deeply involved in the New York City parade for decades. He served as parade grand marshal in 1997. He was instrumental in inviting the first ever gay group to march in the 2015 parade and later authorized a second LGBT group, the Irish Lavender and Green Alliance to march in 2016, successfully breaking a decades-long ban that saw the parade boycotted by many public officials and sponsors.
He was abused and degraded by the Stone Age contingent that wanted to keep the parade a narrow and exclusive one where strangers were not welcome. Lahey took them on and transformed the atmosphere from rejection to acceptance.
His genius was in compromise and facilitation, but only to the point where it made sense. Then he could fight like a street dog.
My abiding memory will be going to Cardinal Dolan’s residence in 2016 for a St. Patrick’s party, just before the parade that year, and among the guests were Brendan Fay, leader of Lavender and Green. I recall marveling that Lahey was even able to convince the cardinal it was the right thing to do, in order to save the parade would come apart.
I remember the tears in the eyes of Fay and realizing just then how harmful the exclusion had been and what a victory that night represented.
Lahey says he will be mostly living in Florida, but I don’t think he’s the retiring type. Like an old warhorse, he will surely charge to the sound of some other battle.
That’s just his DNA The Irish owe this son of the Bronx a lot.