In the popular image of small-town America, the summer season is considered to begin after Memorial Day – an event the community as a whole gears up for and makes worthy of those it honors. Today, some communities seem to have lost that tradition, while others have not been so willing to let it go. The latter is the case with Mercer, Pa.
The small town near the state's western border had been dealing with dwindling interest in its own Memorial Day parade for several years. And in 2002, the parade was simply canceled, especially given that the 9/11 attacks had been just the previous fall – Mercer is about two hours from Somerset, Pa., where Flight 93 crashed.
Meanwhile, the cancellation of the parade shocked Mark and Linda Brown. Both had lived in Mercer for years along the parade route. They were used to the parade, and they loved it. So they were determined to bring an honoring of American war dead back to their town.
The very next Memorial Day, in 2003, the Brown's put on the first Mercer Memorial Parade and Salute. The event was constrained by a lack of funds, but Mark and Linda hit on an idea that could serve as both a tribute and a fundraising tool — a parade route lined with American flags. They went to work drilling holes into the ground to hold them and marketed the flags within the community as sponsorships: $25 paid for a flag and pole, equipment to install it and a dog tag inscribed with the names of both the purchaser and a servicemember, veteran or other loved one the flag was being displayed in honor of.
The following year, 425 flags adorned the Mercer Memorial Parade and Salute route, and 500 in 2005 – a number they decided to cap purchases at. The 500 flags have been a staple of the renamed Mercer Memorial Day 500 ever since, and the yearly list of honorees is posted both on the event's website and in a commemorative book. They have spilled beyond the actual parade route to a side street and into the local cemetery.
But perhaps a better term is "events." This year's celebration, on May 28, will start at 8 a.m. local time and feature a lineup that has evolved over the years to include a fun run and award ceremony; military games; new recruit induction; concert by the Victory Belles from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans; recognition ceremony for the veterans picked each year to be honored at the celebration; and a veterans reception, capped off by the more traditional parade and salute at the cemetery.
This truly is an effort by the entire community of Mercer, and that's exactly as the Brown's intended it. They believe that volunteers need to shoulder such events so servicemembers and veterans don't have to. They are, after all, the honored guests.
Among the community groups that step up year after year to help put on the Mercer Memorial Day 500 is Legion Post 159 of Mercer. Linda Brown commented, "We have maintained a good relationship with Post 159 since we began organizing." The post has donated money every year, and helped get a platform built for the salute in 2004. The Legion Riders chapter has participated in the parade for the past two years, the Auxiliary unit decorates floats, and members both march and ride. Even the post-sponsored Cub Scout pack marches. Post 159 also holds an open house and provides lunch for the many participants and volunteers. And according to Post Commander Paul Griffiths, "We invite them in to enjoy the day with us." Griffiths is also a Mercer native, and says that "these are the best parades I've ever seen."
A prominent theme that both Mercer Memorial Day 500 literature and the nonprofit group's website puts forward is the idea that "Memorial Day is not a holiday. Because of what it represents, the rest of the days of the year are our holidays." The Brown's, and all their fellow volunteers and residents, have made their revamped commemoration worthy of those it honors.
To learn more about the Mercer Memorial Day 500, visit www.mercermemorialday500.org/index.html .