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By Andrew Wedgebury
One for the history books
Famous Marching Presidents turn 30
Where else can you find Teddy Roosevelt trading jokes with George Bush, while Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton discuss football?

Every year at the Nevada City Constitution Day Parade it would be quite possible to catch such a scene, along with the rest of the presidents, their first ladies, and Secret Service agents - all in full-period costume.

The Famous Marching Presidents is one of the parade’s most popular groups, recently reaching its 30th anniversary. In addition, the group has been officially recognized with a proclamation from the Nevada City Council.

Artist David “Sparky” Parker was charmed by the Nevada City area while in college and moved here in 1970 to pursue his love of painting.
Since then, he been a firefighter, a bartender and a member of the Sierra Community College Board of Trustees. He also helped bring the Sierra College Nevada County Campus to Grass valley. It was in 1988 when he had his vision of the Famous Marching Presidents.

“The Constitution Day Parade was really started by the Masonic Lodge and Bill Lambert,” he said. “For years there would be busloads of Masonic Lodge members from Sacramento to the Bay Area, all in their wonderful colorful costumes, participating in the parade. For years they were really the bulk of the parade. My concept was that we really needed more local participation in the parade. Then literally, in the middle of the night, I woke up and said ‘Marching Presidents.’ I thought it was a grand idea.”

That year was the first for the group, which numbered 54 members altogether. All the presidents, a few first ladies, and a large group of Secret Service agents made their first stroll down Broad Street to the delight of the crowd.

 “We’re now 130-strong and have really taken it to a different level,” Parker said. “Back then it was a tumultuous time in many ways; we were 30 years younger and actively socialized differently. But as an artist then and now, I considered the group as an art project, not just as having a party and walking down the street – although that is always a great time.”

Parker, now the vice mayor of Nevada City, noted they are now in the fourth decade of the Famous Marching Presidents, and a name has been established for each decade. “I actually stole the first one from the great Robin Williams,” he said. “It’s labeled, ‘If you can remember the First Decade, you weren’t there.’ ” The second decade became the “First Lady Decade,” which saw the First Ladies corps grow in number and participation, with many making their costumes. The third decade is officially called the “Clever Decade,” where the group paid more attention to community outreach. This led to the idea for a monument to the 19th Amendment.

“We have a rich history here, and in my research the obvious suddenly stared me in the face, a perfect fit for an organization such as ours: Aaron and Ellen Clark Sargent. He was a senator and ambassador, and she was in many ways a contemporary of Susan B. Anthony. He entered the 39 words that would become the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in America. It has genuine roots here. So, this has been an ongoing project, and by 2020 we want to unveil a statue that honors that contribution. 2020 will be the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.”

Another Famous Marching President tradition is the William Lambert Community Service Award, which has been given since 1990 to recognize outstanding community service. The 2017 Lambert Award winners are Joanna Robinson and Cindy Maple. 1990 would also mark the first T-shirt for the group (designed by Parker and honored the Watsonville Band). In 1993, cartoonist and satirist R.L. Crabb joined the group and has been the creator of the Famous Marching Presidents yearly logo ever since.

Although he hasn’t yet thought of a label for the fourth decade, Parker sees more educational outreach ahead. In the past, the group has gone into schools in costume as a living history lesson.

“Part of our outreach program in the next year will be education involved with the 19th Amendment in an effort to be ready for 2020, and it might involve a group of presidents returning to the schools. Also in the early stages is a concept to honor a young woman with an award for outstanding achievement and possibly a scholarship. This is the sort of outreach we would like to see this decade.”

Parker noted that the group now has been around long enough to be multi-generational. Parents in the original Presidents now have grown children marching with the group down Broad Street. Original members Karen and Frank Chizek (who represent the Clevelands) have been with the group for 30 years.

“It’s been a very interesting journey and looking back it gives me a warm feeling inside, being a part of this tradition,” Frank said. “I realized back then, and even more today, we have this amazing group of people that live here from all walks of life, and this art project demands that we do more than just have a good time – which we will never lose – but to really participate in the community.”
The Famous Marching Presidents and their entourage pose for the annual group photo before this year’s Constitution Day Parade in Nevada City.