James Johnson says he was happy to serve his community for 25 years by leading the Austintown parade.
By IAN HILL
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
AUSTINTOWN -- It began as just another duty for a young Austintown police officer.
Today, 25 years later, James Johnson will say an emotional goodbye to his usual spot in the Austintown Fourth of July parade.
"I love our community, I love the people here," he said. "I just want to say goodbye."
Johnson, 55, has been the township police officer riding at the front of the parade since it was first held in 1976. When he retired from the police in May, he also gave up his spot at the head of the parade -- beginning July 4, 2002.
A police officer leads the parade to ensure that onlookers don't get in the way of the floats, marching bands and other parade participants.
Today the police will allow Johnson to ride at the head of the parade for one last time, with his wife at his side and in his own car.
Appreciates support: Johnson said he will use the opportunity to thank the Austintown residents who have supported him and the parade during the last 25 years. He also has served as chairman of the township's Fourth of July committee for the last six years.
Johnson has said that he most likely will not serve as committee chairman next year.
Parade chairman Chris Lewis praised Johnson for his commitment to the Fourth of July celebration and the people of the township.
"I think he really sets an example for the younger generation ... just because of his dedication and loyalty," Lewis said. "Ultimately, he's one of the nicest guys in the world."
Eric Harris, co-chairman of the township's Independence Day activities, added that Johnson has brought "experience and tradition" to the committee.
"He understands the business owners and the needs of the people," Harris said.
Johnson said he was assigned to lead the first parade by his police sergeant. It was "just another a detail to do," Johnson said.
Then he led the first parade, which he described as "breathtaking." Johnson said more people showed up to watch the parade than township officials had expected.
Parade's growth: Over the years Johnson has watched as the number of parade participants and spectators has grown to make the Austintown parade one of the largest in Mahoning County.
Johnson has lived in Austintown since he was 3, and he is a graduate of Fitch High School. He served as a police officer for 31 years, including 21 years as a lieutenant.
Now Johnson said he wants to step aside and give someone else a chance to leave his or her mark on the parade and the community.
"I've done it for all these years, it's about time someone else takes over," he said. "Maybe someone else will lead it for the next 24 years."