For 20 years, Della Weissenberger of Commack has marched in New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade with a great sense of pride and duty.
As a 16-year-old seeking the promise of American opportunity, Weissenberger arrived by boat from Ireland 60 years ago with the help of an aunt in New York who had sponsored her journey. These days, she gives back to the community as an active member of the Irish-American sisterhood charity organization Ladies of the Order of Hibernians of Suffolk County.
"It's one of the most important days of the year next to Christmas when you were born in Ireland," Weissenberger said as she walked with a group of women, young and old, from seven chapters of the organization based in Suffolk County.
Weissenberger was among tens of thousands of people who marched along Fifth Avenue in pristine sunshine Wednesday to celebrate the 249th annual St. Patrick's Day festivities, waving and cheering with spectators who arrived hours before the parade start, standing three to four deep.
Grand Marshal Ray Kelly, the city's police commissioner, said it was an honor to lead the parade after years of marching in the police contingents.
"It feels great. I do it every year," Kelly said. "It means a tremendous amount for an Irish-American."
Of the day's lovely weather, Kelly joked, "I ordered it. I take full credit for it."
For most of the afternoon, the sounds of bagpipes and marching bands reverberated up and down Fifth Avenue. Politicians including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. David A. Paterson and Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy marched the route.
The political importance the parade holds for meeting and greeting voters was not lost on candidates like former congressman Rick Lazio of Brightwaters, a Republican running for governor. "It's an important parade for New Yorkers," said Lazio, who was invited to march by City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone). "You want to be here if you are putting yourself out there as a candidate for public office."
The St. Patrick's Day event was the last of New York City's world-famous parades to take place before new restrictions go into effect April 1 requiring all parades to be shorter in time and length to save money.
Parade officials said they don't expect the regulations to have much of an effect on the affair.
Seaford resident Victoria Bardes and about 10 of her friends and family hopped on a 7:45 a.m. train to the city to catch the parade.
Bardes, 21, marched in the parade when she was a student at Seaford High School and continues the tradition now as a spectator.
"I make a point of being here," she said, because "just the atmosphere is so great. Everybody is having fun."
With Sophia Chang