Longtime organizer Tom Miller has always said the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood parade would go on every Fourth of July, rain or shine.
On Monday, for the first time in the event’s 67-year history, the weather demanded that neighbors prove it.
So they did.
Quarter-sized raindrops pelted the pavement as more than 350 people started Independence Day by carrying flags through the Durham streets to Oval Park, where Watts-Hillandale residents have gathered to celebrate the holiday since 1950.
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Brightly-colored umbrellas and rain jackets polluted what for years has mostly been a parade of red, white and blue. Nonetheless, the parade and park – with its playground and tiny baseball field – once again displayed one of the Triangle’s most recognizable scenes of Americana.
Ted Outwater carried Turkey’s flag to honor those who died in a terrorist attack on Istanbul’s airport last month. He smiled as he watched children play in puddles and ask their parents for rides in the fire engine, which leads the parade.
“This is so unifying,” Outwater said.
Led by Miller, volunteers climb ladders and hang a variety of flags from clotheslines more than 20 feet above the ground. Because America is a melting pot, he welcomes flags from other nations and states. The resulting banner provides a colorful parade finish line and backdrop for the O.K. Chorale, which caps festivities by singing the national anthem and “American the Beautiful.”
“The energy and patriotism of this community is just so impressive,” said Susan Orovitz, a resident who enjoyed her first parade on Monday.
The majority of the celebrations have been organized by three people: the late Tom and Alice Walker, who launched the event, and Miller, who’s coordinated it for more than 20 years now.
“This would not happen if it weren’t for Tom,” said David Dodson, a chorale member.
“He has become the symbol of our neighborhood,” said Clare Adkin, who’s lived in the neighborhood 15 years.
Miller was born 60 years ago in Durham and has collected hundreds of flags over the years, including a 45-star family heirloom that flew in the Spanish-American War and several that were retired from the Capitol grounds in Raleigh.
“We have more flags than can be displayed,” he said. “We usually only get about half of them up.”
He worked in the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office for 30 years, focusing on real estate matters, and has a passion for history. Most of all, he loves seeing his neighbors enjoying each others’ company while working toward a common goal.
“If nobody did anything, I believe that hundreds of people would show up and they’d march in the parade without any preparation at all,” Miller said.
He noted that he recruited 20 volunteers this year. Despite the weather, 35 showed up.
“We had more volunteers this year than any other I can remember,” Miller said.