Dr. John Lahey
By Ray O’Hanlon
This Fourth of July holiday, Dr. John Lahey can focus on his barbeque plans.
That’s because this will be the first Independence Day in many years that he will be independent from the worries and concerns of working for the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The parade, of course, takes place in March but is really a year round event in terms of its organizational requirements.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
Dr. Lahey is chairman of the parade board directors.
As of Sunday, July 1, he will be the former chairman and the title will have passed to his successor, Sean Lane.
Lahey’s full time job during his parade years was as president of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.
When he took the helm at Quinnipiac it was a small college. Some would have described it as distinctly backwater.
Today, Quinnipiac is anything but and has a nationally recognizable name that is only in part due to its political polling operation. It has grown in terms of enrollment, academic reputation, and as a result of many more courses being offered.
The parade has always been nationally recognized, indeed internationally so.
But its growth over the years has at times seemed to be more like one step forward, two steps back.
The parade has been buffeted by argument and debate and an uninvited role as a stage for a broader debate on gay rights, one that witnessed extraordinary scenes on Fifth Avenue during most of the parades of the 1990s.
Dr. Lahey has been a significant figure in the parade controlling structure going back to those tumultuous years.
Indeed, his presence on the parade board amounts to a quarter of a century, give or take a few days.
For most of that time he was vice chairman of the board, serving alongside board and parade committee chairman, John Dunleavy.
Lahey and Dunleavy were a classic Irish and American combination, the former being the American, the latter being the Irish immigrant.
The two worked together through all the street demonstrations, court cases, political pressures, internal intrigues and court cases that swirled around the parade.
That is until three years ago when they ceased to work together.
In the summer of 2015, the parade experienced one of its internal upheavals and part of the fallout would see Lahey emerge as board chairman and Mr. Dunleavy, ultimately, take his leave of the parade organizing hierarchy.
There would be court writs and ill feeling, and allegations that St. Patrick himself was being extracted from the parade, its physical manifestation, indeed its very ethos.
Lahey, more than once over the past three years, has found himself refuting this even as he and the board he chairs has gone about a task of changing certain of the parade’s bylaws.
At one point, back in 2016, Lahey, penned a letter to affiliated organizations echoing a board statement regarding the central position of St. Patrick in the parade, but also touching on issues of governance and parade finances.
“Contrary to what you may have heard recently, neither I nor any other member of the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade Board of Directors has any intention to alter in any way the Catholic nature of the Parade and the express purpose for which it is incorporated, namely, to honor St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland and the Patron Saint of the Archdiocese of New York. Any change of this type would require a majority vote of the Board of Directors of which I am just one vote out of 18.”
Words can assuage, though not always convince, and the rumblings around the role of St. Patrick in the parade named after him have continued.
Dr. Lahey’s final day as board chairman, meanwhile, would appear to be appropriate.
On June 30, 2015, a board meeting at which 13 of those 18 directors were in attendance took place in Manhattan. The meeting convened out of concern for parade finances, a perennial worry.
The meeting concluded with Dr. Lahey as chairman and John Fitzsimons (since deceased) as its vice chairman.
The ascendance was smooth enough. The reaction from some parade quarters not so smooth.
So Dr. Lahey’s chairmanship has been something of a roller coaster.
But this weekend he will be satisfied in himself that the parade is set to march on and into a future that is now a good deal more secure in financial terms.
And, of course, he has presided over the giant leap in the grand parade story that has seen the inclusion of not one, but two LGBT groups in the parade line-of-march.
This has resulted in a lifting of political pressures that at more than one point threatened the parade’s place on Fifth Avenue and its crucial tradition of marching on St. Patrick’s Day itself, except when March 17 falls on a Sunday.
And as he contemplates his July 4 celebration, John Lahey will tell himself that the grand marshals in recent years have been clear cut standouts.
Like the parade they have led.