HOLYOKE – The Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade Committee honored the recipients of the 2009 Citizenship, Thomas F. Rohan, George E. O’Connell, and Daniel J. Gallivan Awards last Saturday night at the Holiday Inn.
The proceedings began when Master-of-Ceremonies Brian Q. Corridan blew a loud whistle. Like a referee, Corridan said he would blow the whistle if a recipient’s speech ran 30-seconds over the allotted time.
He then produced a fire extinguisher that would be used if a speechmaker violated his 60-seconds rule. The award-winners kept their acceptance speeches brief.
Members of the Holyoke City Council attended the dinner. City Council President Joseph McGiverin led a delegation comprised of Pattie Devine, James Lahey, and Todd McGee. State Rep. Michael Kane joined them.
Kateri Walsh, the O’Connell Award Winner and a member of the Springfield City Council, was joined by her husband, Daniel and their children. The award she received honors a member of the parade committee for fundraising efforts.
“I was flabbergasted,” said Walsh as she sat in the hotel’s lobby. “I was pleased and honored. It’s a very special feeling to be recognized by the people who are your peers and who you work with. I very honored, but I recognize a lot of hard work goes into making the parade a success.”
Walsh, the co-Chair of the Ambassador’s Award Committee, credits fellow members for making the annual Ambassador’s Award Breakfast a success and dedicated her award to them.
The parade committee holds the annual breakfast a few hours before the start of the parade. Both local and national dignitaries attend the event.
Walsh spoke of the excitement of meeting past Ambassador Award Winners.
“We’ve had wonderful award winners and one of them is here tonight, Vincent Dowling, who was our Ambassador Award winner in 2005. You know they have such a wonderful experience in Holyoke. It’s magical.”
Walsh admits the some Ambassador Award Recipients, on first contact, have not heard of Holyoke or the parade. With some explanation, though, they are usually won over and decide to participate.
“The people that turnout, it just creates a memory for them that helps us,” said Walsh. “One Ambassador Award winner helps you next time. I remember Frank McCourt walking down the streets of Holyoke and he couldn’t believe the number of people on the parade route.”
Rohan Award Recipient Russell McNiff Jr., was the first to accept his award. McNiff Jr., a longtime member of the parade committee, can be found behind-the-scenes on parade day.
The award honors an individual who made significant contributions to the overall success of the parade. McNiff Jr., started with the parade in his childhood, when he ran errands on parade day.
He is the son of Russ McNiff Sr, who is a past Rohan Award Winner. “There is always someone special behind you and that’s my wife, Terri” said McNiff Jr., as he held up the plaque and the traditional walking stick each award winner receives.
Michael T. Ahearn, the Gallivan Award Recipient, was next to come to the podium. The award is given to a long-standing member who made significant contributions to the parade committee, but is not a resident of Holyoke.
The Northampton resident and member of that city’s St. Patrick’s Parade Committee, helped bring the University of Massachusetts Marching Band to the Holyoke for last year’s parade. The band is normally not in season at that time of year, but they made allowances.
The highlight of the evening came when Citizenship Award Recipient Tommy Leonard accepted his award. A large poster-size photo of Leonard loomed behind the podium on the stage.
A long-time road race organizer, he founded the Falmouth Road Race that attracts 25,000 runners annually. The race raises more than $500,000 for local charities. Leonard was also instrumental in organizing the Turkey Trout and the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Road Race.
“It was shock and awe,” said Leonard about winning the award. “You know, the credit I get from this race (Holyoke St. Patrick’s Road Race), pales in comparison to Mike Zwirko and Mike Tierney, the race directors. It’s the people that do the nuts-and-bolts behind the scenes, the volunteers, they’re the people that deserve all the credit; it’s not me. I might have had the vision, I might have had some wacky ideas, but they’re the ones.”
Leonard held onto a cane, a reminder that his knee replacement was only weeks away. He left his home in Falmouth to come to the event, even though he battled a tough bout with the flu.
“Holyoke has some kind of magnetism that I’m attracted to. I love Holyoke, I love everything about it. I love the people. I love the community. I love all the events they put on,” said Leonard.
He added, “It means an awful lot, I said ‘if I were a horse I would be shot,’ because I can’t walk, I’m sick as a dog, but I don’t care. I came out of a sick bed. That’s how much I feel about Holyoke.”
A Westfield native, he was a product of the Depression and endured a difficult childhood. Sports, especially running, gave him not only needed direction, but a cause to champion the rest of his life.
The Tierney family of Westfield took him in when was 15-years-old and they put him on the right path. He said before that he had a mischievous streak in him.
“They did their damnedest to straighten me out and I owe an awful lot to them because I fear where I would have gone if it hadn’t been for the Tierney family,” he said.
Though he started running competitively at Westfield High School, Leonard said he started to run at six-years-old when his parents dropped him off at an orphanage. Once there, he jumped out a window and into a snow bank.
“I started running with my worldly possessions, a shopping bag full of clothes. I was running towards Pittsfield and I got picked up. I ran away from the orphanage four different times,” said Leonard.
When he was not involved in the world or running and organizing road races, he worked as a bartender for over 35-years in Boston, Cambridge, Cape Cod, and Houston.
His years as a bartender at the Eliot Lounge on the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues in Boston, kept him close to the action on marathon day in that city.
A small bridge that crosses over Commonwealth Avenue bears his name. Before the marathon runners sprint to the finish-line on Boylston Street, they must go under the bridge as they start the turn on Hereford Street.
He was joined at his table by former marathon world-record holder Steve Jones. Jones, a Welshman, flew in from his home in Boulder, Colorado to be with Leonard. The two have been friends for over twenty-five years.
“He’s an enigma. Everything about Tommy Leonard is typical blue-collar, U.S. Marine sort of kind-of-guy,” said Jones. “He’s a really, really nice guy.
Jones said his friend never has a bad word to say about anyone and always sees the good in persons.
“Even if sometimes they aren’t good people, he sees whether it’s in a performance, whether it’s character. Just some little flaw they have, he can see the good parts of everybody. It’s frustrating because you know sometimes those people, those situations aren’t the best. Tommy sees the good in it all,” said Jones.
He said there is more to Leonard than the road races and events that he helped bring about. Jones cites Leonard’s local roots and blue collar background as key traits.
“His life started in a tragedy and like his book says, when he finally put both his feet in one place, ‘this is heaven I’m going to be a good boy.’ He doesn’t look at anything with adversity.” said Jones.
He added, “Anything that ever happened to him, he’s embraced it and made it part of his life whether it’s good or bad. It developed Tommy into the person he is now.”
With the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Colleens in attendance, one will be ground Grand Colleen at the Coronation Ball on Feb. 21. The event will be held at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. Information can be found at: http://www.holyokestpatricksparade.com.