THIS FRIDAY MORNING, hundreds of Savannah teens will dress for St. Patrick’s Day in green military uniforms and shiny black shoes instead of green T-shirts and shiny beads.
The entire JROTC brigade of 291 boys from Benedictine Military School (known locally as “BC”) will march in the parade, continuing a generations-old tradition.
Preparation includes two days of drill for the full brigade, plus a special assembly.
“At the end of drill I bring the whole brigade into the cafeteria,” says Lieut. Col. (Ret) John M. Owens III, Senior Army Instructor for BC’s JROTC program. “I talk to them about standards, how to interact with the crowd. For the freshman class they’ve never walked in a parade like this. It will be a first.”
The cadets are expected to remain in formation, march in step, and keep their eyes forward from the time they step off at the parade’s start until they’ve completed the 2.75 mile route hours later.
Although BC’s JROTC program participates in community activities all year, the Saint Patrick’s Day parade is the only public event involving the entire brigade. “We’re a school. I can’t be pulling out 300 kids every time there’s a parade,” says Owens.
Marching in the parade is a source of pride for the students, their parents, and school alumni. As the only Catholic high school for boys in Savannah, BC is the alma mater for many of the members of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee.
“BC has been a highlight in the parade since my dad and grandfather were there. It’s always a crowd favorite,” says John P. Forbes, General Chairman of the parade committee and a 1986 BC alumnus. “I only marched one year because my sophomore year it absolutely poured with rain so we didn’t march.”
JROTC participation is mandatory for all BC freshmen and sophomores, and about 90 percent of upperclassmen opt to remain in the program. Forbes credits Owens, a graduate of BC’s class of 1961, for inspiring a higher participation rate by current juniors and seniors than in past decades.
Cadet Colonel Shane Summerlin, a member of BC’s senior class, is the Cadet Brigade Commander, the highest ranking student in BC’s JROTC brigade.
“I walked in the parade all my life with the family,” says Summerlin. “Going to BC, I had all my cousins march in the parade. It was a tradition. I was told how important it is. Every cadet, we know the importance of it.”
The first year Summerlin marched with BC, “I had gotten up late so I was really rushed,” he says. “I was scrounging to get my uniform and my mom was yelling at me up the stairs.
“Once you get there your training really comes in,” says Summerlin. “Whether you know it or not you’ve been training for it all year. You go and you march like clockwork. You’re just in a different setting, and the girls are coming up kissing you. The girls are a distraction but they’re not a problem.”
“My sophomore year, my mom waited at the WTOC camera to kiss me,” he says. “That was pretty embarrassing, which she’ll probably try to do this year.”
“Last year was the first year I was really in leadership. I saw how much BC means to Savannah. It is pretty impressive. This year I’m excited because it’s the last thing I’ll be doing as a leader,” Summerlin says. “It’s a big day for all the seniors.”
“Most of the Irish community have sent their boys to BC,” says Owens. “There’s that bonding and pride. There’s almost a continuous wave of clapping when BC goes by.”
The larger crowds and inappropriate behavior by some female spectators in recent years have made the parade a source of some concern for Owens.
“This is a military organization. We’re not training aids for women to paw on. I tell the boys, you look straight ahead, let the police deal with them,” he says.
Among Owens’s most hair-raising memories are the time when mobs of people on both sides of the parade route surged into the street, meeting in the middle and separating dozens of boys from the rest of the brigade.
About five years ago, “two groups of people on opposite sides of the street got into a confrontation. At least three or four folding chairs were thrown over the heads of the unit at these two groups. I was so happy to get past that.”
This Friday, the 291 cadets will gather in uniform at 9 a.m. in Forsyth Park.
“When it’s time to march I’ll look at Shane and say ‘Okay, it’s time to go.’ Everybody gets real serious,” says Owens.
“I always challenge the cadets. I guarantee they’ll look good until the reviewing stand,” he says. “I challenge them as we move back to the park, to keep the same attitude, in step, keep it together until we get back. I’m very proud that every year they keep it together up until the end.”