Neither snow nor illness stand in the way of KC parade

The bell at Redemptorist Church rang out, signaling the start of Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and Jody Watson, perched on the rear of a red Thunderbird convertible, reached for his bagpipe.

Known as the “Lone Piper,” Watson, 86, has been leading the Kansas City parade for years. No matter that a month ago he was in a hospital with a bleeding ulcer and doctors told him to take it easy.

He wasn’t going to miss a parade.

“I got too much vinegar in me for that,” Watson said.

Maybe everyone could have used a shot of vinegar Sunday. It was cold, 34 degrees at the 11 a.m. parade start, with wind gusts and a few snowflakes blowing about. The day came near to a wintry mix of green and white.

Still, a bundled crowd lined Broadway from Linwood Boulevard to 43rd Street to view the 41st annual affair. You had to look close at some lawn chairs to see a set of eyes peering out from blankets.

Might have been a good year to stay home and watch on TV, yes?

No, said Katie Erwin, there with her husband, Cliff, and 1-year-old son Jamie.

“Not the same,” she said. “We had to come. This family has been doing this a long time. My parents have pictures of me here when I was little. I’ve spent a couple of St. Patrick’s Days in Ireland, and Kansas City does something special.”

Cliff motioned down to Jamie in his stroller. The toddler’s hat, over his stocking cap, said, “Kiss me, I’m Irish.”

“He’s the dedicated one,” he said.

“He won’t take that hat off,” his mother said.

The parade, with a theme of “Gathering of the clans, an Irish homecoming,” featured floats, horses, music, fire trucks, antique cars, motorcycles, politicians and, of course, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Patrick Tobin, a minister with Catholic Charities for 54 years, served as grand marshal.

But the parade didn’t include the atheists. The parade committee denied a request from the Kansas City Atheist Coalition to participate, saying the group didn’t fit the religious significance of the day.

“Blatant religious discrimination,” Sarah Hargreaves, president of the group, said in the street crowd gathered in front of Kelly’s in Westport.

About 20 members of the group held signs to protest the snub, in a St. Patrick’s way.

One said: “Kiss me, I’m a left-handed, red-headed, kilt-wearing, Irish Atheist Stepchild.”

Andy Beals said the sign had earned him two kisses before the parade was even over.

“People have been really great,” Beals said. “Most think we didn’t get treated right.”

Watson, the “Lone Piper,” managed the cold just fine Sunday. It’s nothing, he said. He grew up in Canada until he “left at 15 to go to sea.” In recent years, he’s had a heart attack, a kidney removed and a knee replaced.

“But I can handle this,” he said. “I used to walk the whole thing. Take a drink of water and spit it out, and keep going. Now, I’ve been going to the gym to get ready. And I’ll be back next year, too.

“My doctor says I can do this until I’m 90. Don’t want to make him out to be a liar.”