The grand marshal of the 73rd Southeast Arkansas District Livestock Show and Rodeo Parade that made its way down Main Street Thursday afternoon may be able to maintain the title of youngest to hold the position for a long time.
The honor this year was bestowed upon 3-year-old Will Strachota, the son of the late U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Strachota, who was killed in Afghanistan in June and laid to rest July 7 in Grapevine. Will was accompanied by his mother and widow of Strachota, Lauren Strachota, as well as the soldier’s brother and sister-in-law Matthew and Katie Tole; and the U.S. Army Casualty Assistance Officer for Arkansas who worked with the family after Strachota’s death.
The parade theme for 2012 was “Let Freedom Ride” and fair committee member Rob Cheatwood said that he and his fellow committee members unanimously agreed that Will would be the perfect choice to lead a parade honoring freedom.
“We were looking for a theme for the parade and after we talked to Sgt. Strachota’s family and they agreed to participate, it kind of went from there,” Cheatwood said prior to the start of the parade.
As they did on the day of the funeral service, members of the Patriot Guard Riders escorted the Strachota family.
Where the number of bikes and riders in July was upwards of 200, an estimated 90 to 100 riders took part in the parade.
“I was just honored to get the call to do it,” said Richard Grimmett, president of the Arkansas Fallen Riders Association. “I got chill bumps when I was asked to be a part of the parade with Will in honor of his father Michael.”
Grimmett said that he sent out a mass email to members of his organization telling them of the event.
“Michael’s father Pat is going to be riding Michael’s motorcycle in his honor as part of the honor guard today,” Strachota said.
Lauren Strachota expressed thanks for her son being given the opportunity to honor his father in this way.
“I think it’s awesome to be at the head of the parade honoring Michael,” Strachota said.
She said that it has been somewhat difficult to convey to Will exactly what is going on.
“His dad’s been gone for over a year,” Strachota said of her husband having been deployed to Afghanistan for a lengthy period before his death. “We tell him daddy is in Heaven and that he misses him. So, it’s hard to know for sure what he’s thinking about all of this.”
She said that Will was looking forward to leading off the rodeo parade.
“I told him that his big line is ‘let the parade begin’ and we’ve been practicing it,” Lauren Strachota said with a laugh. “He’s excited about it. I told him he’s going on a hayride.”
The parade began right on time at 4:45 p.m., with a large black pickup pulling a trailer decked out in bales of hay that carried Will and his family.
Immediately behind came row after row of rumbling motorcycles of many vintages and varieties, from classic Harley-Davidsons to three-wheelers.
“I think that what they are doing for that little boy in honor of his father is so nice,” said LaShunda Scott, who sat in a lawn chair along Main Street surrounded by her children. “We’ve come to the parade every year since they were babies. It is all about the enjoyment for them for me.”
Next to head down Main Street toward the Jefferson County Courthouse was a full contingent of Watson Chapel School District entries, including the JROTC battallion, and the Watson Chapel High School marching band, steppers and cheerleaders.
Tommy and Sissy Jones were attending the parade to root on their son Tanner Jones, a senior in the Chapel band.
“He’s been playing saxophone until this year when the band director asked him to switch to tuba to fill an empty spot,” Sissy Jones said of her son. “He picks up new things really quickly.”
“Even before he was in school we came to the parade,” Sissy Jones said. “We’ve been coming out for it for 15 years.”
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office was represented by Sheriff Gerald Robinson and members of the Junior Deputies program.
JCSO Capt. Lafayette Woods Jr., who drove the rig pulling the department’s parade entry, said that the program is making a positive impact on area youth.
“It’s been a pretty fruitful program,” Woods said. “We don’t have a lot of male role models around so this program gives the participants an opportunity to be mentored by one of our deputies. Right now we have kids aged 7 to 16 in the program.”
Other participating school bands included Pine Bluff High School and Jack Robey Junior High School.
The rodeo was well represented by two large bulls riding in a cattle trailer pulled by a Dodge pickup emblazoned with the logo of the Dodge Rodeo Series and groups of horses and their riders were sprinkled throughout the parade.
Politicians from nearly every electoral contest coming up in the Nov. 6 general election turned out either in person or by proxy through supporters.
Candidates in the upcoming Pine Bluff School District run-off elections taking part included Zone 6 candidates Leon Jones Sr. and Donna Barnes and Zone 4 candidate Henry Dabner Jr. made his way down Main Street on foot carrying a large campaign sign.
U.S. House of Representatives District 4 candidate Gene Jeffress (D) rode in the back of a pickup, State Sen. Stephanie Flowers rode in a classic red convertible, and Pine Bluff mayoral candidates including the incumbent Carl A. Redus Jr. as well as challengers Steven Mays, Debe Hollingsworth and Thelma Walker made their way by foot, float and car.
A snafu occurred when a Union Pacific freight train came through the crossing on Main Street and suddenly stopped, completely blocking the intersection and cutting the parade in two.
The grand marshal vehicle and the accompanying Patriot Guard riders had just made it across the tracks on their way north when the crossing gates activated and forced a halt to the bulk of the parade for approximately 30 minutes.
Pine Bluff Police Department Lt. David Price said that the problem with the train was the result of a pressurized hose breaking which caused the train to automatically come to a stop.
“The conductor had to walk the train after the stop to make sure none of the wheels came off of the tracks,” Price said. “The way train brakes work is that when you have a reduction in pressure it sets the brakes as a fail safe to stop the train until the problem can be found. When the train lost pressure there was nothing the engineer could do until the problem was resolved.”
Raquel Espinoza, director of corporate relations and media with Union Pacific, said that the company is sorry for any inconvenience caused by the incident.
“We apologize for any inconvenience caused,” Espinoza said. “This is certainly an unfortunate situation but when something is not right with a train it has to be stopped to make the repairs. This ensures that everyone in the communities we pass through are safe.”
Espinoza said that the railroad tries to coordinate with municipalities when special events such as parades are planned but sometimes issues cannot be avoided.
“We do our best to work with groups who are hosting events near the railroad tracks,” Espinoza said. “We ask for as much advance notice as possible to help us plan around the event. We prefer to have notice weeks in advance.”