Shriners, East Texans Turn Out For Parade
By JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONS
Jim Owens, 68, may have a case of jet lag, but the Houston area Shriner isn't going to let a little fatigue ruin his fun.
The engineering safety officer left Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Wednesday for a 19-hour plane ride to Tyler, arriving in time to join in Thursday's start of the action-packed 78th Annual Texas Shrine Association Convention
As a topper to the weekend, he awoke about 4 a.m. Saturday to squeeze into a miniature hot rod and rumble down Front Street in a parade filled with hilarity and hijinx.
"I was transferred last November," Owens said. "I wanted to be here this weekend to help out. I participate because, in the end, it helps the children in our hospitals. That's why we do it."
The weary traveler was among hundreds of men from 13 Shrine temples who showed up to participate in the convention, filled with activities and competitions.
Shriner's International began in 1872 for fellowship and philanthropy, its key benefactor being the Shriners Hospitals for Children, a charitable health care system of 22 hospitals specializing in orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries, plus cleft lip and palate correction.
Children can receive care regardless of the parents' ability to pay, and almost 1 million have benefited from the efforts, officials said.
Shriners seemed pleased with convention and attendance.
"We're having a great time," said Dave Thomas, 73, of Sharon Shrine Temple in Tyler. "It's very well organized, very well attended. There's probably 1,800 (participants) here ... the city has been very good to us."
The convention, which wrapped up Saturday, is expected to generate an economic impact of more than $2 million for the city because many participants brought along their families, Tyler officials said.
Shriner clown Ronnie Lee, 70, of Austin, a member of the Ben Hur Shrine, was among the convention's participants.
He showed up for Saturday's parade sporting bright green overalls, intricate facial paint and a head of wild yellow hair.
"It takes me about two hours to put on makeup," he said, grinning under his painted-on smile. "In Austin, we do about 15 parades a year so I'm a little used to this kind of stuff -- it's for a good cause."
Dwight Morris, 60, of Ben Wheeler, was among those cruising Front Street in a mini Model T.
"It takes a little practice to get in and out," he said. "It's like riding a lawnmower, only a lot more fun."
Richard Ventrca, 61, of the Arabia Shrine Temple in Houston, said the hot rods are powered by 12.5 HP Briggs and Stratton engine.
"Getting in is pretty easy," the 6-foot-5 Ventrca said. "Getting out, you've got to lift up and get out ... carefully."
Some participants said controlling their rides isn't as easy as it looks.
Daryl Atkinson, 51, of Longview, and Billy Rozell, 64, of Tyler, are in the Sharon Mounted Patrol.
The pair was sighted perched atop quarter horses, Goldie and Doc, who seemed to enjoy the occasion.
"You just have to keep them moving and keep them away from loud noises," Rozell said, noting his horse Doc doesn't care for trailers either.
Atkinson said he enjoys the assignment and helping out the Shriner organization.
"I love horses, and we ride for a very good cause," he said, patting Goldie. "It's a win-win for me."
Joe Gibbons, a Shriner for 33 years, has been riding the same miniature, handcrafted Jeep since he joined up. The former Cedar Creek resident serves as drill captain of the Sharon Jeep Patrol.
"They (vehicles) were made in 1962," he said. "There really isn't a secret to driving them. It just takes a whole lot of luck."
Tony Garen, 47, of Tyler, said he's willing to risk a little bruising to help out.
"The Jeep patrol is like a little family," he said. "We ride for the kids who can't walk."
Billy Posey, 45, Whitehouse, agreed. He's among the youngest in the Sharon organization, earning the nickname "Superman" shortly after joining. It seems that as he was learning to drive his Jeep, it suddenly accelerated, dragging him along behind.
"I just hung on," he said with a grin.
When asked if the group had any other close calls, Thomas laughed and said, "The first time I started it, it went under a pickup truck."
Parade spectators waiting outside Harvey Convention Center seemed to enjoy the efforts of those in the parade.
Proud grandmother Debbie Medders helped her daughter, Amanda Smith, and cooing granddaughter, Haley, 15 months, spot "Grandpa," a member of the Oriental Band, as the possession passed.
"Look, there he is," Ms. Medders shouted, trying to grab her husband Randy Medders' attention as Ms. Smith waved the baby's hand.
"This is our first parade, so we're learning," Ms. Smith said with a grin. "This is about seeing Grandpa."
Down the street, Jennifer Harrelson of Tyler was delighted to find a little amusement amid her Saturday morning errands.
"We were heading down to the Farmers' Market and saw the clowns at the Cotton Belt Building," she said. "We were coming here anyway, and now we get to see the parade."
A short distance away, little Dominic Lewis, 7, was perched on the curb alongside his dad, John Lewis, another Farmers' Market regular who happens to love a good parade.
"I think my favorite parade is the one on the Fourth of July," the Lindale dad said. "I'm a proud supporter of the country. We're here today to have fun."
Dominic, eyes wide with excitement, seemed most interested in the mini hot rods.
"They looked like race cars," the boy said.