For years, the number of veterans who want to — and can — march through Beverly’s downtown in the annual Memorial Day parade has been dwindling. First, organizers shrank the parade route to make it more tolerable for older veterans.
But still, few marchers and spectators turned out. So this year, officials canceled the downtown parade.
Instead, the city will pay tribute to those who have died in military service in a ceremony Sunday at Odell Park. Jerry Guilebbe, the city’s veterans’ agent, is hoping this year’s commemoration at 1:30 p.m. will reinvigorate the annual tribute.
“I could just see this, slowly but surely, withering away,” he said. “I just didn’t want to wake up some Memorial Day and find out that there’s nothing.”
The town will still hold its other parade Sunday at 9:30 a.m. through the neighborhood of Beverly Farms, where wreaths are laid at memorials for veterans.
But some of Beverly’s veterans are disappointed that the downtown parade has been canceled.
Bill McPherson, a World War II Navy veteran, marched in the parade until a bad leg forced him to stop two years ago. But as long as some veterans can march, he said, the parade should continue.
“It gives the veterans a chance to get out and show what this country stands for,” said McPherson, 89. “They answered the call. And I think the citizens of Beverly are thankful for the veterans and the job that they did.”
His wife, Janice, an Army nurse during the Korean War, agrees.
“I guess I don’t like change,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a change for the better.”
Guilebbe, a Vietnam War veteran, said the town started talking about canceling the downtown parade years ago because veterans in the city were concerned about low turnout.
Last year, about 25 veterans marched in the parade, he said. Each year, fewer older veterans, sidelined by health issues, can march. And many of the younger veterans, from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are first responders who work Memorial Day weekend, he said.
Robert Gilbert, commander of Beverly Vietnam Veterans, was resigned to the parade’s cancellation.
“You have to be realistic about this,” he said. “The past few years, there were very few people who attended.”
At another Beverly parade earlier this month, for American Idol contestant Angie Miller, who had returned to her hometown, the route was packed, Gilbert said.
“I said this is the way our parade used to look,” he said. “But it’s not that way anymore.”
For Guilebbe, the Memorial Day parade is not essential to honoring those who died in military service. Placing flags on each of the 3,000 veterans graves in the city is more central to the holiday, he said. But that, too, has required some changes.
Since there are no longer enough veterans taking on the colossal task, Guilebbe has brought in other volunteers: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, schools, citizens.
“That’s how this gets done,” he said. “It takes hundreds of hours.”
He hopes the service at Odell Park, whose speakers include a local World War II veteran and US Representative John Tierney, attracts more people than the parade did.
“I remember counting the people who were watching the parade,” he said. “It was about 75 or 100 people. I just thought there was a better way to honor veterans than that.”
Beverly City Council president Paul Guanci said he has received no complaints about the parade’s cancellation.
“It’s definitely easier on the veterans where they’re getting older and older,” he said. “Our World War II veterans are in their 90s.”Kathleen Burge can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.