Like towns and cities across America, you can count on the Town of New Castle to host a Memorial Day parade and ceremony on the last Monday of May. The tradition of honoring the men and women who sacrificed their lives for our country began after the Civil War. Continuing through the decades it was known earlier as Decoration Day until 1967 when the U.S. government officially adopted Memorial Day as the name.
Chappaqua resident Captain Peter Gaudet, a West Point graduate, has been the Parade Grand Marshal since 2017, taking over the command from longtime Marshal and Memorial Day Committee chair Captain Jim McCauley, who remains on the committee. Months of planning precede the parade and ceremonies. Committee member David Egerton compiles the biographies that are read by Girl Scouts during the ceremony. Other committee members are Dr. Michael Finkelstein and Eric Rosenfeld. The committee works closely with Jill Shapiro, Town Administrator, Tiffany White, Assistant to the Town Administrator, Town Hall staff, and Town officials, who help with logistics, produce the program, and invite Federal, New York State and Westchester County dignitaries.
President and Secretary Clinton are among the dignitaries who attend. “Hillary and I love marching in Chappaqua’s Memorial Day parade. It’s not only a chance to connect with so many of our neighbors, but to join in honoring those who have served and sacrificed on behalf of our country. We look forward to it every year as an event that truly represents our community, what it stands for, and what makes it so special,” says President Bill Clinton. The Clintons’ participation is greatly appreciated in the community. “They bring out a lot of people, which is nice,” says McCauley.
Gaudet was Grand Marshal for the virtual and video Memorial Day celebrations in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic and was glad to have the in-person parade last year. “In 2023, we’ll continue to make sure we have this special day to come together as a community and take the time as Americans to reflect on those who gave so much including their lives for our freedom.”
Gaudet credits McCauley and his predecessors for the structure of the day. “We want to maintain the traditions as much as possible, but one of the new things is we’ve had a lot of success accessing interesting speakers with interesting backgrounds, including last year’s speaker my West Point classmate Dreux Coogan, a Chappaqua resident who was a Green Beret and is one of the top executives at Pepsi.” Along with the committee, Gaudet selects the keynote speakers. He couldn’t reveal the Keynote speaker for this year’s ceremony. “We want the element of surprise. People have preconceptions about who Veterans are. We pride ourselves on showing you who the modern American warriors are.”
For Gaudet the involvement of young people is essential. “The most important thing and the focus for me is the children of our community. Children are looking at their parents who are coming out to remember. This is an opportunity to remind our children and ourselves how fragile democracy is, how fragile freedom is. The least we can do in our community is pass that down to our children.” And since those in the military pledge to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, Gaudet always carries some copies of the Constitution with him to hand out on Memorial Day.
Gaudet hopes that the playing of the national anthem and the speeches at the ceremony all resonate with the community. “I always start the program by asking parents to hug their children and children to hug their parents.” And Gaudet explains to them that they should take the time to hug each other because there are many parents and children who can’t hug each other because they were killed in action.
Commemoration of Memorial Day begins at Victory Corners at the top of hill on King Street in Chappaqua. Girl Scouts present the wreath and taps is played by high school students. The parade then commences down the hill to Memorial Plaza by the Chappaqua train station for a ceremony. At both ceremonies members of local clergy offer prayers, an invocation and benediction. Gaudet says that it’s a good way to start off and end the parade with the words of the religious representatives.
For decades until his death in 2015, long-time Chappaqua resident Gabby Rosenfeld was an integral part of the day. His son, Eric, remembers how important Memorial Day was to his father. “He served as Grand Marshall for many years and remained as a parade Marshall after that. Community and giving to the community were very important to Gabby and to his wife Louise. Giving his time by participating in the parade and serving on the parade committee was one way to show his support for the town and for those who served.” Gabby Rosenfeld was appointed a “Chevalier” of the French Legion of Honor in 2011. “Only those who have been in the wars and have seen the lives that are lost can truly appreciate the sacrifices that they have made. Gabby saw a lot of that in World War II and considered himself lucky to have returned and been able to live a full and rewarding life. Honoring those who were not as fortunate was important to him.”
New Castle honors those fallen heroes who gave their lives in many ways. One example is the Route 120 bridge named in honor of Sgt. Kyu H. Chay who was killed in Afghanistan by an explosion in 2006. And each year fire department members place fresh flags on the graves of fallen soldiers buried in the Quaker Ridge Cemetery in Chappaqua.
Town of New Castle Historian Gray Williams has seen parades in town since he moved here as a child in the 1930s. “The parade has always served as a celebration of community pride and harmony.”
People line the streets waving flags and encouraging those marching in step. Hearing residents cheer means a lot to McCauley who is a Vietnam Vet.
“It’s a wonderful small-town America feeling,” says Vicki Bergstrom, a lifelong Chappaqua resident. “I still remember the excitement I felt as a Brownie participating in the parade. We made our own banners and I felt so much pride marching down King Street, hearing the cheers and applause as we passed by.” It’s been a family tradition as well. Bergstrom’s daughter Madeline marched when she was a Girl Scout. Her parents, Krista and Richard Lange marched with the Rotary, and her husband Ex-Chief Charlie Bergstrom marched with the Chappaqua Fire Department.
Town of New Castle Supervisor Lisa Katz reflects on the spirit of the day. “It’s an atmosphere of festive reverence, as we come together to honor the memories of those who have given their lives in service to our country. The parade is an embodiment of the best of our community, as we come together to honor our veterans and to never forget the tremendous debt we owe to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.”
From the marching bands to the muskets, and all the cheers and applause in-between, the sounds of celebration are memorable. Gaudet is optimistic that the day has real meaning for the community. “The concept is to bring out the family and kids for entertainment, and hope there is entertainment plus some deep thought about what makes America special, and why people signed up to give their life for our freedom.”
Photos by Grace Bennett, Ronni Diamondstein, Hannah Rosenberg and Carolyn Simpson. (All rights reserved)