Interview with John O’Donnell, Founder of the Colorado Springs Saint Patrick’s Day Parade

No matter race, creed, or gender, Saint Patrick’s Day is a holiday most Americans can get behind. Whether you’re a recovering Catholic, a hearty Protestant, a Buddhist, a Green Beer Lover, or just a spring enthusiast happy that winter is finally (almost) over, the holiday has something for you. In Colorado Springs, we have a time-honored tradition most natives have attended: The Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is the way we ring in springtime.

I was lucky enough to catch John O’Donnell between tasks. He’s the frenetic and eclectic founder of Colorado Springs Saint Patrick’s Day Parade as well as many other public events in the city. He shared his experience, wisdom, and love for this fun community event as he explained why the Saint Patrick’s Day Run, Bike Events, and Parades, are a trope he, his family, friends, and community create every year together.

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Deen: This is Lindsay Deen with US Represented, and I’m here with John O’Donnell, who is the founder of one of the biggest parades here in Colorado Springs, the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. John, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself?

O’Donnell: Hi everybody. My wife Carol and I and our kids have been working on this thing since we started it back in 1985, and it’s grown to be—well, it’s the official harbinger of spring in Colorado Springs.

Deen: You always know that you’re probably going to have one more snow storm, maybe.

O’Donnell: But not before Saturday, so I’m happy!

Deen: Yes. So you founded the parade in 1985–why did you found the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade here in the Springs?

O’Donnell: Well, I had just moved back—I grew up here, and I moved to Denver for a number of years, out of town going to college. When I came back here, I was here for a year or two, and I got together with some friends—one was a banker, one was a stockbroker, and we just put our heads together. We started a parade down here.  It was very successful. It just accidentally happened on the 17th that year, that Saturday. The crowd was monstrous, the weather was nice, and we had people having to shuck four layers of clothing—everyone thought it was going to be cold. We had a 5k race and a mile run the day before. I think we had 350 runners, and we had someone run a mile on Colorado Avenue in 3 minutes and 57 seconds, something like that. It was speedy, I can tell you that.

Deen: What would you say Saint Patrick’s Day means to you, and why is it important for those of us living in the Springs?

O’Donnell: Colorado Springs is not a community with a lot of cross-cultural references. People have moved here from all over the country, so we don’t have Italian neighborhoods, or Irish neighborhoods, or Slavenian or Polish neighborhoods or Russian neighborhoods—we just don’t have that. We don’t have it except in small doses. And the Irish thing here, really what we’ve done, is that it’s not meant to just be an Irish thing. It’s really meant to be a community celebration, and we work all year trying to recruit different types of cultural groups—wonderfully choreographed Mexican dancers, South American—I think one year we had a Nicaraguan group of dancers, we’ve had Japanese, Chinese, and Korean entries, we’ve had African American and of course, the Irish is all over the place.

It’s really meant for everybody. We’ll have business groups, church groups of all denominations, and it’s just meant to be a little bit of something for everybody to get out on the streets and be a bit of community together. That’s my best explanation.

Deen: That’s beautiful. Thank you for founding it and making sure it happens every single year.

O’Donnell: And what we’ve done—Colorado Springs is, in many places, a very young community, and in a lot of places, an old community that behaves like it’s young.

We have a lot of people who run and hike here. So, for the run (5K for Saint Patrick’s Day – link, starts at 10:00 am0), we’ve had between 3300-3400 runners. I think we’re talking about 2,500 this year. For the bike ride (Pedaling for Saint Patrick’s Day), which starts at 8:30 Saturday morning, we’ve had as high as 450, but we’re expecting 250-300 this year, and for the Kid’s Fun Run, we’ve had as many as 4-500 kids running that half mile and one-mile run in front of Acacia Park and Fountain, there, to help get the parade started. So, it’s become a family athletic event, a social event as well as a community event.

Deen: Just tying everything together.

O’Donnell: It takes about 4 ½ months to organize every year.

Deen: Wow. What is it like being on the organizational end, how does it feel to begin, and how do your emotions move as you go along?

O’Donnell: Well, emotionally, you’re always in a hurry. There’s always one more thing to do, one more group you wish you could get in, one more sponsor you’re trying to cajole into helping. So it’s really busy. And the project side of this—some of it becomes rote, but most of it is SOP—Seat of the Pants—Do some homework, talk to a friend, drive across town to meet somebody, answer phone call after phone call, it really is an organizational—let’s call it an opportunity. It keeps you busy, and it’s exciting.

Deen: Absolutely. What significance does the “wearing of the green” have for us here in Colorado?

O’Donnell: Well, let me start by saying, Saint Patrick’s colors really are blue and gold—that’s why Notre Dame is like that. The Irish tricolor—orange is Protestant Ireland, green is Catholic Ireland, and white stands for peace. You can wear the green or wear the orange or wear them all, and it has to do with brotherhood.

We had a gentleman several years ago, Jim Lyons, and Jim is an attorney in Denver. He was appointed by the President of the United States to take on the Irish peace process—he just wrote a book about it. Three or four years ago he was our Grand Marshall, but he’s the guy who put together the finance package and treaty at the recent end of the Irish troubles. Listening to him talk about that, you really get a sense of what the wearing of the green is. Green is community.

Deen: Just the fact that you’ve organized this and continue to do so every single year is such a boon to our community.

O’Donnell: We started this in ’85, but we also started the festival of lights parade and did the first four or five of those. We worked on the balloon event—we’ve done this all over town, and this is the one we’ve kept doing year after year after year. Our nieces, nephews, all our children, have grown up volunteering for these projects. Many of our friends’ children and our friends come back to participate—I have people coming all the way out from Texas to work on this.

Deen: That is so cool. Just bringing people back together even if they’ve moved away. It’s one of those events, I think.

O’Donnell: And it’s over in six or seven hours, but it takes 4, sometimes 16-20 weeks to organize this project. It takes a lot to get people to line up in a straight line and push those carts down the street. But when it’s over every year, sometimes we go, “Never again!” but we’re always back the next year.

Because we don’t have a lot of those cultural or ethnic ties, what we create at the parade is, in a philosophical sense, different, but also the same because we’re getting people from different stripes from across the community to show up in one place and do one thing together. So, does it create a sense of community? That’s exactly what it does.

And it’s even more important here because there’s not a lot that binds us. 20% of this town turns over every year or two. When people come up to me and say, “I was in an earlier Saint Patty’s Day Parade, and now my children are in it,” I know I’ve gotten old. So, we do like doing it. It’s been a great calling card for years, and I want to thank everybody who supports it. The parade is pretty much funded privately. We get a little bit of help from the city, but not as much as some of the other projects, so we pretty much raise every dime ourselves. It takes a lot to put shirts on the runners, the kids, bike-riders, the cops and barricades. But we’ve got a good supporting group on this.

Deen: Well, thank you for spending the time to talk with me. It was great. This is Lindsay Deen signing off for US Represented.

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After finishing his interview, I contemplated community. With local elections coming up, I’ve been hearing so much about how Colorado Springs has a bad rap in other states, even in other cities in our own state. Perhaps the community may not seem to offer much to outsiders. Maybe we’ve elected less-than-responsible officials, or maybe we’re just not good at communicating with the outside world.

However fast the military portion of the population transitions, those not in the military choose to live here because we love it. It’s beautiful, and I cannot think of a better way to honor our unique community than by creating new traditions to bind us together. Thank you, John O’Donnell, and all of those who work to create fantastic cross-cultural gatherings.