America’s Thanksgiving Parade: Local volunteer helps make the magic happen

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Parade Company volunteer Don Graham (right) delivers beads to Van Conway, a member of the Distinguished Clown Corps, in the staging area America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit Thursday. The clowns distributed beads to spectators along the parade route.

Sunday Times Newspapers

ALLEN PARK – Those who line Woodward Avenue in Detroit each Thanksgiving are familiar with the high school bands, character balloons and celebrity “big heads,” that have become icons of the decades-old America’s Thanksgiving Parade.

But a less-visable staple of the parade works behind the scenes to ensure viewers enjoy those parade favorites.

Don Graham, 70, of Allen Park, is one of the thousands of The Parade Company volunteers who help make America’s Thanksgiving Parade, now in its 85th year, one of the most visible family events in metro Detroit.

“What a way to start the day for Thanksgiving family adventures – watching the parade or even going to it,” Graham said. “It’s a great joy.”

Since 1984 The Parade Company, a not-for-profit organization, has relied on a small paid staff, a board of directors and thousands of volunteers to bring the parade and other family-friendly events to Detroit each year.

Under the auspices of the Michigan Thanksgiving Parade Foundation, The Parade Company volunteers also help local charities raise funds year-round by making appearances in costumes or “big heads” at their events across metro Detroit, and at the annual Hob Nobble Gobble party, now a black-tie event held the Friday night before Thanksgiving Day.

Graham said he enjoys meeting so many other volunteers, who collectively log over 15,000 hours a year at Parade Company corporate and sponsor events.

“There are probably close to 2000 people… (who) take pride in what they do, and come back year after year,” Graham said. “So it shows that not only are they great volunteers, but they’re helping to supply funds to all the many charities that The Parade Company supports.”

On parade day Graham helps celebrity guests get to their float assignments.

At the end of the parade route Thursday, he made sure parade celebrities get off the float as needed for on-camera interviews, escorted them back to their floats, and at the end of the parade helped them find their departure ride.

In the past two years he escorted the reigning Miss Michigan winners: in 2009 Nicole Blaszczyk of Novi and in 2010 Katie LaRoche of Bay City.

Some volunteers dress up as clowns or wear the big paper-mache’ heads at select fundraiser events outside of the parade. Graham remembers several turns as famous Michiganders for a trot down Woodward.

“I’ve been a ‘big head’ … I’ve been Aretha Franklin with a shimmering dress on and my big chunky shoes,” Graham said. “I (was) hidden inside (the costume)… we see through (a screen in) the neckline.”

Graham wore the Aretha Franklin paper-mache’ head for The Parade Company-supported Detroit Public Schools kickoff down Woodward to Hart Plaza.

Graham has also served as a tour guide and in support roles for the company’s studio, where busloads of schoolchildren get to see how the floats are built and may even try on a paper-mache’ head.

“It’s like being in an automobile manufacturing area, except instead of manufacturing station wagons we’re manufacturing these wonderful floats,” Graham said. “It’s just a great adventure and I think it really sparks (the students’) interest.”

Graham grew up in Detroit and remembers going down with his family to see the Hudson’s parade and Santa Claus. He remembers that the parade was filled with bands, floats, clowns, people and “just the excitement of the day.” And although it was cold, he said it didn’t make any difference.

“We still found a way to get to the front of the curb and watch that parade,” Graham said. “I remember all that. I think every young person remembers that throughout their life.”

He brought his own family to the parade about every other year when they were growing up. His son and two daughters are now adults, and he now has nine grandchildren.

“And now I see the adventures I had as a youngster through their eyes a little bit,” Graham said.

Graham began volunteering as a child growing up in Detroit through school, church and Boy Scouts. He continues to volunteer with his church, Allen Park Presbyterian, and local government, art organizations and as a youth mentor.

He estimates he spends about 20 hours a week volunteering with different groups. At The Parade Company he volunteers his time at the Target Fireworks, Riverwalk Days, Hob Nobble Gobble and events for other fundraiser partners. He also volunteers with numerous other organizations throughout the area.

Graham, who retired 11 years ago, sold chemicals for DuBois Chemicals in Cincinnati before he took a job overseeing the opening of 12 Men’s Warehouse stores in Michigan. Before he retired he spent several years working at Chelsea Menswear in Wyandotte.

Though he spends his time giving back in numerous ways, his work with the parade holds a special place in his heart, he said.

“The parade really teaches people how to have fun,” Graham said. “It’s a hoot… a great adventure and it’s another way to show that (the volunteers) care about the community.”