Parades take some organizing. Surprise parades take even more.

This wasn’t a big parade by typical St. Patrick’s Day standards. In fact, it took place on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, which coincides with Mary Jo McDermott’s birthday, even though Mary Jo McDermott is all Irish. As are her children. As are her grandchildren.

Mary Jo also happened to be turning 90 that day, and for years she had been saying she wanted a parade for her 90th birthday. She didn’t remember saying that, but at the age of 90, there’s just too much to remember.

Her children and grandchildren, however, remembered, and that is what they planned. Of course, it isn’t easy maintaining the element of surprise when you’ve got a bagpiper tuning up on the third floor of the family home on the 900 block of North East Avenue. He hailed from the Stockyard Kilty Band, said granddaughter Claire McDermott, assistant director of special events at the Art Institute (so she knows how to plan things). They hired this bagpiper because Grandma McDermott was born in the Back of the Yards neighborhood?#34;way back in 1915.

They kept her in the kitchen and distracted her with plenty of family commotion while the piper warmed up.

Flyers had been distributed to all the neighbors in advance, inviting them to the parade. Banners, signs and parade hats were hauled out of the basement and distributed to the crowd of 40 or so who gathered on the front lawn. The family had to run around to all the houses, ringing each doorbell two times, the agreed upon signal to join the parade.

When the piper began playing out front, the jig was up, so to speak, and Grandma walked out to see what was going on. There, in addition to the neighbors, she found her grandson, David, the parade’s grand marshall, dressed in a tuxedo and a green derby ready to usher her around the block.

“She loved it,” Claire said. “She was in tears. She couldn’t believe we had pulled it together.”

They circled the block, stopping traffic. “It was a real Irish Catholic spectacle,” said Claire. Grandma was in fine form. “She’s very quick. She’ll live to be 100. There’s no slowing down.”

Grandma, in fact, still lives in Rogers Park on her own. Until seven years ago, she lived in a third floor walkup apartment. Steam heat Irish, they used to call it. She claimed the stairs kept her young. Mary Jo recently passed the test to renew her license and still drives to her son’s house in Oak Park for regular visits.

“She’s a charmer,” Claire attested. “She can charm a whole room with one joke. She’s a lover of life, definitely a character.”

The parade ended in the McDermott kitchen for hors d’oeuvres and beer. Later, the family sat down to a corned beef and cabbage meal.

And then there was the letter from Sen. Dick Durbin. Dave McDermott (aka The Grand Marshall) is also a Durbin aide in his Chicago office, so he made sure the Senator took note of the auspicious event.

“She was so impressed,” said Claire.


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