There weren't any extraterrestrials, or space walkers, or Mars rovers in the line of march. But there was someone on the reviewing stand familiar with at least two out of the three, and maybe all three. It was the Grand Marshall of the 23rd annual Alexandria St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Former Secretary of The Navy, now Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Sean O'Keefe got a call on his answering machine one day requesting a call back from an old friend. That was Pat Troy, chairman, Ballyshaners, Inc., which means Old Towners in Gaelic, and Master of Ceremonies for the annual "wearin of the green" event.
"I met Pat when I was at the Pentagon as Secretary of the Navy. And I used to frequent [Troy's pub] Ireland's Own. In fact on my final day as Secretary in 1993, my farewell party was held there," O'Keefe said at the pre-parade breakfast last Saturday morning.
"So when I called him back he asked if I'd be this year's Grand Marshall. I was honored," he said. "You can't turn down Pat."
O'Keefe joined Noel Hahey, Ambassador of Ireland; John Dunleavy, chairman, New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade; Virginia Governor Mark Warner; Alexandria Mayor William Euille and Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper; U.S. Rep. James Moran (D-8), and a host of other dignitaries in leading the parade down King Street.
But prior to being presented his "staff of authority" by Troy at the Holiday Inn Select following the breakfast, O'Keefe had an opportunity to share some thoughts on the space program and future plans for NASA.
"The President's directive to send humans back to the moon and to Mars is really a renewed commitment to go somewhere again. It's about exploration," O'Keefe said.
"That is emphasized by the Mars exploration going on right now. But if we really want to emphasize exploration, in the true sense, we have got to get back to human exploration," O'Keefe stressed. "That's what exploration is."
AS FOR THE COSTS involved, "It's not outlandishly expensive. Only seven tenths of one percent of the entire federal budget is spent on NASA. And that won't substantially change with a renewed commitment to human exploration. But it will transform our orientation," he emphasized.
Prior to O'Keefe receiving his ceremonial staff from Troy, Euille welcomed all those present to Alexandria to be part of the annual Irish heritage celebration. "We are welcoming Irish Heritage Month all month," Euille noted in reference to the flag dispute between Troy and the city over not allowing the Irish flag to fly along King Street after the parade.
"The sun is going to come out and we are rolling out the green carpet," he said. Troy announced at the parade the flags along King Street would remain, with the American and Red Cross flags, throughout March.
Buttressing Euille's pronouncement of sun shining on the parade, Moran opened his remarks by proclaiming, "I sure hope the day clears up. If its sunny Pat's in a good mood. If's it not he gives us flak from the reviewing stand. He doesn't blame God. He blames us."
IN KICKING OFF the parade, Troy said, "We [the Irish] are very proud of our heritage and our city." He also announced that this year's parade was "a special tribute to two of Alexandria's finest citizens" who died within the past year — former Mayor Charles E. "Chuck" Beatley, Jr., and former Fire Chief Charles H. "Charlie" Rule.
To emphasize that point there were two reviewing stands at the intersection of Royal and King streets facing one another. One held official dignitaries and the other the Beatley and Rule families.
"Twenty three years ago I told Charlie Rule I would like to have a St. Patrick's Day Parade in Alexandria. His response to me was talk to Chuck Beatley," Troy told the crowd. "Chuck Beatley said to me, 'you run the parade and we'll do anything we can to support you.'"
Troy reminded those lining King Street that in 1960, at age 24, Rule became the youngest fire chief in the nation. He was named to that post in Greenfield, Wis. He served as Alexandria's chief for seven years. He was 67 years old when he died on August 26, 2003.
Beatley served as Alexandria's mayor for five terms, the longest in the city's history, Troy noted. "He was mayor when the city acquired the Torpedo Factory, now Alexandria's top tourist attraction. He was a visionary," Troy said. Beatley died December 29, 2003, at age 87.
In keeping with fire service tradition, five bells were sounded for each man in honor of their memories.
Leading off the seven division parade was the U.S. Navy Band followed by marching platoons of each of the military services as well as the Joint Color Guard. It concluded two hours later with the Hine Junior High School Marching Band.