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SPORTS OP-ED: The New York City Ticker-Tape Parade That Nearly Didn't Happen
The parade was the third day of a week-long “Tribute to Achievement” tour honoring the 1984 U.S. Olympic medal winners that began Monday in Los Angeles with a breakfast with President and Mrs. Reagan. The next day, an event at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. drew thousands more standing in the mall to watch the ceremony. Underwritten by Southland Corporation/7-Eleven, every U.S. medal winner and a guest was invited to participate.
When the Olympians arrived at Kennedy Airport the police closed all traffic to Manhattan for the 26 bus convoy. Traffic was stopped and backed up for miles on the Grand Central Parkway and Long Island Expressway but fans were out of their cars, waving U.S. flags and shouting, “USA, USA.” More lined the bus route in Manhattan from the Midtown tunnel to the Plaza Hotel. Because of the Soviet boycott and tremendous success of the U.S. Olympians, patriotism was never higher.
But the event on Wednesday, August 15, 1984 nearly didn’t happen because of an overly officious gate guardian in the mayor’s office. For weeks Don Smith, my partner in New York, had been trying to get an answer and approval from this young woman who was responsible for special events and parades. Smith and I were responsible for producing the week-long for our client, Southland.
Her arrogance and rudeness included demanding a guarantee of how many New York City Olympians would win medals. We predicted two: both African-Americans -– Mark Breland in boxing and Peter Westbrook in fencing. Both did medal. That was still insufficient for her to make a decision.
Because of the magnitude of the logistics, the day finally came when Don and I had to decide whether or not New York City would be part of the tribute tour. Chicago was our second choice. We were convinced the woman had never discussed the parade with Mayor Koch and was using him as the excuse for not giving us an answer. We felt the best time to bring this to the mayor’s attention would be when he is at home on a weekend and away from his office and staff. So, we decided it was time to network our relationships to get directly to the boss.
Don called his friend Sonny Werbelin, the late sports and entertainment impresario and friend of Koch. He called the mayor at home and asked him why he didn’t want a parade to honor the U.S. medal winners. I called Bill Simon, our first Energy Czar, former Secretary of the Treasury and a former Wall Street heavyweight who also was a good friend of Koch. As we expected, the mayor knew nothing of the request and thought it was an absolutely fantastic idea. He also didn’t appreciate being made the “heavy” in the situation by one of staff members. During his Monday morning staff meeting Koch expressed his outrage with his appointee and told his staff that of course New York was ready to roll out the red carpet for the Olympians.
Following the parade Koch presided over ceremonies at City Hall. The tour continued Thursday in Orlando where the Olympians and guests enjoyed Disneyworld before a final stop in Dallas. Friday marked the largest turnout for a Dallas parade and a Texas barbecue at South Fork Ranch, complete with fireworks, capped the week-long event.
Because of the arrogance and immaturity of one gate guard (they prefer to be called executive assistants), this great New York event may have never happened. When gate guardians become obstacles they need to be circumvented, as Don Smith and I did to get to Mayor Ed Koch. It is disappointing that no Olympic sponsor has undertaken a similar event since.
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Rene A. Henry, a native of Charleston, WV, lives in Seattle and writes on a variety of subjects. In his latest book, “Customer Service: the cornerstone of success,” he devotes a chapter just to the subject of gate guardians. He directed international media relations to help bring the 1984 Olympic Games to Los Angeles and has spent five decades of his life in sports at all levels.