For the love of O’Pete


You might or might not see Pete Gabriel today at the 39th Mahoning Valley St. Patrick’s Day Parade hosted by WFMJ and The Vindy.

Call his attendance “weather permitting.”

Such wasn’t the case 39 years ago when the parade first started.

Nor was it the case last year when, after years of hit-or-miss attendance, Pete opted to join the parade because his grandchildren wanted to take part in it. Right up near the front last year, there was Pete and the Gabriels.

It was a familiar place for him because, for the first however many years, it was “Pete Gabriel’s 57KBN St. Patrick’s Day Parade.”

As the parade nears 40 years old next year, we featured Pete this week on Vindy Talk Radio. You can find that visit with host Louie Free on our Facebook page.

A walker has slowed Pete’s gait, and other medical gear accompanies him. But the vigor and wit is vintage Pete.

One irony for what is reportedly America’s 10th largest St. Patrick’s parade:

“I don’t have a stick of Irish in me,” said Pete about the venture he launched in just 60 days back in 1979.

“So many people love celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. I saw an opening to do something and just jumped at it.”

That move sorta left Pete – who’s Greek – as a man without an ethnicity, you could say.

“The Greek community was upset at me. They were wondering why I was doing an Irish parade. My thought was, ‘Who would come to the Greek parade?’ And the Irish were like, ‘A Greek is running this?’ I couldn’t win.”

Well, the Valley is a winner for the event, and The Vindy is glad to have a hosting role in what started as a radio promotion for Pete.

“Pete was very smart in getting this going,” said Joyce Kale-Pesta, current president of the parade committee. She’s been with the parade since it started.

“Pete got all the Irish organizations involved. There were four to five groups back then. Before there was the parade, we did not all get together and celebrate. Now, we all celebrate. It solidified the Irish community. We would not be where we are today without him.”

She said even the structure of the parade traces back to the first days.

“Where to put bands, color guard, floats and spread them out ... systems we use today are still Pete’s.”

Well, maybe not Pete’s very first systems.

“That whole first year was a learning process,” said Pete. “I learned how not to line up a parade – like having three high school bands marching back to back is not too smart.”

He rattles off top moments as if they’re happening in front of him now.

For instance, the first paid employee of the parade never had to work to earn his money. Pete arranged for elephants to be in the second parade. (Or third – he’s not quite sure.) He hired a guy to walk behind them with a wheelbarrow and shovel to, well, you know ...

“Who’s going to volunteer to do that?” he said.

That day was cold and miserable. The parade was downtown then and started near the fire station at West Federal Street and Belmont Avenue.

The fire crew, wanting to give the elephants some comfort as they waited for the start, opened a truck bay for the elephants to hang out in.

And inside, they let loose with, well, you know ...

“Everywhere,” said Pete. “And it smelled. I felt so bad for the fire guys cleaning up.”

But it made the first parade employee happy.

“He walked behind the elephants that day – and didn’t have to shovel once.”

When the parade first moved to Boardman, Pete said there was a sizeable snowfall, and the street department painted the snow green along the route.

“People still come up to me and say, ‘I remember the green snow.’”

Pete lived the parade, said Joyce. And he still does today – even though his attendance is iffy and it’s been years since 57KBN and his name adorned the event.

When he visited this week, his collection of memorabilia was crisp and organized. Some of it is posted on our Vindy Facebook page and on Vindy.com – including photos of the very first year.

The event rolls on in its 39th year today – to the amazement of Pete and Joyce and others.

The parade begins at 1 p.m. from McClurg Road in Boardman. It continues down Market Street, ending at Southwoods Place. Trophies for Best of Parade and Best Irish Theme will be handed out, as well as awards for Best Themed Float, Best Band, Best Drum Line, Best Novelty Unit and Best Color Guard.

Some new features of this year’s event include a pre-parade Owens Construction BMX Stunt Team performance (the team also will join the parade), and the U.S. Navy Band performing in the procession.

And maybe in a van in a parking lot somewhere today, Pete will be there.

“This community has taken the parade to heart and made it the harbinger of spring,” said Pete.

“I think I gave this town something of me. But the town has given something of itself, too. It’s a Valley parade.”

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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