Fourth of July Committee fights to continue Lawncrest’s 95-year tradition

Jean Pleis volunteers with Lawncrest’s Fourth of July Celebration Committee because her father, Gene Mansdoerfer, or “Mr. Olney,” did the same in his community.

“He got me involved right away and drilled the Fourth of July into me,” Pleis said. “I wish I could do more in his memory to honor him.”

Gary Weaver, the committee’s treasurer, invests his time in the cause because his mother was born on the holiday.

This year will mark the 95th anniversary of the Lawncrest Fourth of July parade and fireworks celebration, assuming it all comes together.

Last year, Pleis, Weaver and the rest of the committee had to write and mail letters with the help of Central High students, alerting neighbors of the cancellation. Those letters broke the news to the neighborhood that the parade and fireworks would be canceled for the first time ever.

The committee still managed to pull together the remainder of the day’s events, including the flag raising ceremony, car show, flea market, Little League all-star games, games of chance, bingo, kiddie rides, string bands, marching bands, food court and baby parade.

But the parade and fireworks, the bookends for the rest of the festivities, were conspicuously missing.

The committee just could not raise enough money to have them.

The City of Philadelphia told the committee that a police presence for both the parade and fireworks would cost $15,000. The fireworks themselves cost $11,000.

“We only needed 50 to 60 police officers for crowd control for the parade and especially for the fireworks,” said Bill Dolbow Jr., the president of the Lawncrest Community Association and the Democratic Ward Leader of the 35th Ward. “In the last 30 years, I can’t think of anything major that has ever happened outside of a few minor skirmishes here and there, but we need them just in case.”

In the video below, members of the Fourth of July Committee discuss ways to save the celebration.

Weaver said most members of the community were unaware the city was not only going to charge Lawncrest money for the police presence, but that in the past, it had also never given the committee any money.

“People thought the city was funding us completely,” Weaver said. “They would come up to me and ask, ‘How much money is the city giving you this year?’ I would have to tell them, ‘None. Nothing.’

Weaver and the rest of the committee hope to raise funds through a corporate sponsorship or two. The committee has been working to draft donation letters to businesses, which are expected to go out in the coming weeks.

The local WaWa at Rising Sun and Longshore avenues provided cold water, hot dogs and its Wally Goose mascot last year, and Weaver hopes the store can do the same this time around, even though the corporation will be the main sponsor of Philadelphia’s Welcome America! festival.

“The people in the area love that store, and they couldn’t have been nicer about helping us out,” Weaver said, “but if something like 200 corporations like Comcast Corp., Sunoco and Pepsi-Cola can help sponsor Welcome America!, why can’t they help the only community in Philadelphia that, to the best of my knowledge, has its own fireworks?

“The two local banks would not even donate to us before the economic recession,” Weaver added. “They told me that they feel they give enough to the city as a whole. I told them that it is the people in this community, this neighborhood, who are your direct customers, not the whole city. The Fourth of July benefits this area once a year.”

Dolbow estimated that the committee has raised about $10,000 so far. Committee member and volunteer Hank Baumgartel said the fundraising efforts began in September and will go straight through the Fourth of July.

“We have no guarantees of going off this year,” said Baumgartel, who served as the parade marshal with his wife a few years ago, “but we are pressing on forward. We’re not looking back at last year. We’re just one community honoring the price of freedom, the veterans and the flag, and we’re going to raise it up on high any way we can. That’s all we’ve ever done. We’re reaching out for help, and we’d like to have our biggest year ever for the 95th year.”

In addition to selling T-shirts the day of the celebration (this year’s theme is “We Thank All Veterans”), Dolbow said volunteers usually walk the parade route and collect about $1,500 to $2,000 in their jugs.

“We’re not only shooting to pull this off this year for the 95th anniversary,” Dolbow said. “We’re shooting for 100 years. That never happens anywhere.”

“It’s hard, and I feel that the end may be in sight down the road,” chairman Steve Cartledge said, “but we’re going to try very hard to raise the money in this bad economy to keep the community tradition alive.”

This year’s Fourth of July festivities, including the parade (the original route might change) and fireworks, are slated for Saturday, July 3. The rain date is Monday, July 5. The actual Fourth of July falls on a Sunday, and Lawncrest has an agreement with local churches never to hold the celebration that day of the week.

For an interactive map featuring the original parade route, click here.

Maria Konidaris and Jennifer Reardon are Temple University journalism students working with Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a class devoted to covering under-reported areas of Philadelphia.

*Article by  Jennifer Reardon, photos and video by Maria Konidaris.

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