Looking back on it, March 2004 was a quirky time in Hot Springs.
Legendary Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry dropped by McClard's Bar-B-Q to sample the sauce, a project to ease congestion on Central Avenue at the King Expressway that had been discussed for more than seven years was ready to fix what former U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., had dubbed "malfunction junction," and Hot Springs National Park was spared the major budget cuts that other national parks around the country faced.
And then there was this quirky little idea to hold the World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade on Bridge Street, which most folks around town couldn't find without a map, even though it was, of course, the shortest street in everyday use in the world, according to Ripley, at least.
Steve Arrison, then known as the executive director of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, liked to stir the pot of controversy over the "world's shortest" thing, and it certainly stuck. That little parade on Bridge Street drew a lot of media attention that first year -- and thousands of parade-goers, much to everyone's surprise.
From 4,000 to 5,000 people squeezed in to watch The First Ever First Annual World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade, which reportedly measured 98 feet 11 inches. The ad commission, the parade's main sponsor, made a great show of getting the distance down short enough to squeeze Maryville, Mo., which had a 99.9-foot parade, out of its title of world's shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Arrison told me at the time that the point of the parade was "never about the record."
"It was about having a fun event, for residents and for visitors."
But the finish line may well have been a gold one for area merchants. St. Patrick's Day happened to fall in the middle of many schools' spring breaks. Some members of the crowd said they were from the Dallas/Fort Worth area -- a prime drawing area for the city's tourism trade -- and many said they planned to go eat at local restaurants afterward.
All of that aside, the one thing I remember the most from that inaugural parade was the kindness of its first grand marshal, Richard "Dick" Kelley, the stepfather of former President Bill Clinton.
I'd known Kelley for years; we had a lot of interaction after Clinton got elected president. Tourism was one of the beats I covered at the time as a reporter for The Sentinel-Record, and we'd occasionally cross paths at meetings where the president's boyhood connection to the Spa City and its potential impact on tourism was discussed.
The A&P had set up seats for Kelley on the Malvern end of Bridge Street, about where the stage now sits each year, sort of to "review" the entries as they passed. There were several empty seats around him -- I was never sure why they were there -- but I was standing in the area with my family watching along with him. My boys would have been around 7 and 10 at the time, and Kelley noticed we had been standing there for a while. He started asking me about my family, and the next thing you knew we were all sitting next to him as the parade went by.
What followed is one of the most memorable moments of my life. Kelley, stepfather of a former president, who had been a familiar face at the White House for years and was known to celebrities and officials of state, chatting with my sons about the different entries, their interests in school, just life in general.
Life is not what you take from it; it's what it gives back to you in return. Sometimes it's the little things that make a big difference. Just like a little parade.