When Irish Eyes are Smiling — Joe, Gunny, and Joseph

March 17, 2002

Joe and Jan have been inseparable since she was a freshman in high school. They have always gone to St. Patrick’s Day parades together. Joe and Jan. Jan and Joe. Their names intertwine, not one without the other. When the two were kids, they partied on top of cars along the parade route. They now enjoy the parade with four kids of their own. They want their children to love the day as much as they do. It’s all about family, and Joe and Jan have a typically large Irish Catholic one.

Jan Welsh stays up late packing for the parade. She’s the planner in the family. It takes a couple of weeks, but she’s from Savannah, so she doesn’t mind all of the preparation. Jan packs snacks for the kids to eat along the parade route. She doesn’t walk with them, so she wants to make sure Joe is completely prepared to take the children. Jan usually starts her day at the parade near Colonial Park Cemetery. That’s at the beginning of the parade route. The younger kids won’t want to walk the entire route, so she’ll be ready to snag them when they come by. She takes them to Chippewa Square to watch the parade. That’s where all of the young families go these days. It’s also where Forrest Gump hung out on a bench in the 1994 film.

Joseph Patrick Welsh Sr., or Joe as he is better known, is a sucker for St. Patrick’s Day. But growing up in Savannah, Georgia, has that effect on you. The parade has been an annual tradition since 1824, so St. Patrick’s Day is part of the fabric of the city. It’s become his favorite day of the year, which is quite apparent to his children. In fact, March is his favorite month of the year. His birthday comes a few days before St. Pat’s. In a way it kicks off the celebrations. He just turned 46.

Joe has been friends with Mark Gunther for as long as anyone can remember. Everyone calls him Gunny. The two are the best of friends. In fact, Jan feels like he just appeared at their condo many years ago and never left their side. Gunny doesn’t have any kids of his own, but Joe is good about sharing his four.

It’s quite a feat to have all seven of them make it downtown. The four kids, mom, dad and Gunny are decked out in their best Irish green. It’s only 7 a.m., so the parade won’t start for a few more hours, but everyone is ready. At least 300,000 people line the streets each year with anticipation; this year is no different.

At 18, Casey Welsh is the oldest. St. Pat’s has become a social event for her. She drove down to the parade with her family, but she doesn’t plan on walking with them. She’ll hang out with friends, but as a senior in high school, she’s doing what most Savannah kids do.

Catherine Welsh is 11, she has to deal with the youngest sister, Sarah, who is 6 and is dressed in the same electric blue dress. They are both Irish dancers; the blue dresses are their uniform. Sarah wants to do anything her big sister does, and Catherine secretly doesn’t mind.

Joseph Patrick Welsh Jr., is almost 4-years-old. This is a big day for him. He’s in a stroller that his mom decorated. The green shamrock streamers wrapped around the handles are just flashy enough to make him stand out on the parade route. He is excited to walk with his dad and Gunny. They have been teaching him to always wave to the crowd and smile.

The hours before the parade always fly by. There is plenty of socializing to do. Savannah has this way about her where everyone seems to know everyone else. Before you know it it is 10:15 and the parade is about to begin. Joe is a member of the Parade Committee and The Knights of Columbus. They wear green blazers and are allowed to travel up and down the parade route as they please.

Joe pushes Joseph along in the stroller. That’s his boy and he is proud of him. In a house full of women, Joseph is his buddy. Don’t be mistaken, Joe is proud of all of his children, but Joseph is his boy. The beginning of the parade route has a lot of excited faces. Parade goers cheer, and the folks who actually walk the route haven’t had the chance to get exhausted yet. There is an electricity in the air that is indescribable. You can hear the bagpipes play in the light breeze.

Suddenly someone throws some beads out into the street. Joseph really wants those beads. Of course, the stroller impedes him, so someone else got to the strands before he could. Joe notices this and waltzes over to the person. They already had multiple baubles so they wouldn’t miss a few. Joe grabs six at first, hands two back, and gives the rest to little Joseph.

March, 2016

“And I just picture that all the time because that is one of the only things I can,” says Joseph, now 17.

Joe had a heart attack on June 5, 2002 just three months after that parade. There was 90 percent blockage. He was probably gone before the ambulance arrived.

“He had a very big heart,” Jan says. In the end that’s the thing that failed him.

“Dad felt like [St. Patrick’s Day] was a day to enjoy all his friends alongside ‘the best thing he’d ever done,’ which he personally told me was marrying my mom and having our family. It was what he was most proud of,” Casey recalls.

March 17, 2013

It is a grand day. Savannah is painted in just as much green as ever.

“Top of the mornin’ to ya!” Gunny yells at anyone who will listen. Gunny stepped in right where Joe left off. He wants those kids to know all about St. Patrick’s Day the way their dad would have taught them.

Jan hasn’t come to the parade as often after Joe died. It’s just not the same. She still prepares for her kids to go though. She has always wanted to keep those memories alive for them, of all of the things that their dad liked to do. Although she’s missed some parades, she makes sure her kids don’t miss a St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah.

Casey is grown by now; she has a family of her own, two boys named Tayten and Emerson. They will walk in the parade when they are old enough, but for now they watch with her from Calhoun Square. Chippewa Square has turned into the party square. All of the children from the young families have grown up and meet there to drink and enjoy the day. Savannah has 22 squares total. The historic district was built around them. The squares were used for community activities and to celebrate holidays in the old days. Not much has changed. The parade wraps around about 10 squares, encompassing a huge chunk of downtown Savannah.

Catherine and Sarah quit Irish dancing a long time ago. They are in college, but try to come home for parades whenever possible. Truthfully, they come back almost every year. Even if it means rescheduling tests.

Joseph has grown a lot since his stroller days. In fact, he’s almost outgrown his dad’s green blazer. He has worn it for a few years, but it cinches in a bit on his frame. He wears a green sash to honor his father. Everything is green on St. Patrick’s Day; just like everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Many people wear similar sashes along the parade route.

Joe’s sash is green with gold stitching. It has a Celtic cross is embroidered at the top with his full name just underneath. “1956-2002,” the year he was born to the year he died. It also has emblems, which represent his ranking with The Knights of Columbus and his association with the Parade Committee.

“So a part of you is still there every year,” Joseph says about Joe and the sash.

Gunny loves all of the kids. He makes sure to call them up and take them to lunch or dinner, or just chat if they’re too busy. Gunny goes to sporting events and practices. Wherever the kids need Gunny, he is sure to be there. Gunny is Catherine’s godfather, but he puts special effort into his relationship with Joseph. Joseph is his buddy. He can see a lot of his dad in him. Everyone can. Joseph is charismatic. He makes everyone in the room feel like his best friend. That’s how Joe was. Gunny takes Joseph to every Georgia Bulldogs home football game; it’s become a tradition for the two of them much like St. Patrick’s Day. They take the four-hour drive from Savannah to Athens, Georgia, ready to cheer on the Dawgs with the same enthusiasm they use to walk through the St. Patty’s Parade.

It’s around the middle of the parade now. Things begin to lag a bit, but Gunny will have none of that. He reminds Joseph to wave and smile, no matter how bored he might get. People came to see a parade, not a kid slumping through the streets. He tries to keep things fun.

Gunny has his own traditions he began with Joseph for St. Patrick’s Day as well. Sure, they still wake up at 5 a.m. and get down to the parade route to socialize, but now that Joseph is older, he sees his old pal Joe emerging more in his son. Gunny challenges now 14-year-old Joseph to a game: snag as many kisses on the cheek as you possibly can, the person with the most is the winner. Young girls in Savannah don bright red or green lipstick for the day and attempt to steal kisses away from the boys. Joseph thinks red is classier. It is clear Gunny is going to win. Joseph doesn’t even stand a chance.

Late November 2013

“He finally got his feet under him. He found a best friend in Gunny, and a dad, and it was ripped right out from under him again,” Sarah says about Joseph through tears.

Gunny was in a car accident in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving 2013. Joseph didn’t take it well, he felt like he should have called him the night before.

Gunny did end up having children of his own, they just happened to be Joe and Jan’s kids too.

“He was my dad’s best friend before he passed, and then he came in my lifetime, well he became a father role. He didn’t live at the house or anything, but he was still like the man that I looked at as my father,” Joseph says.

Jan thinks Gunny and Joseph’s relationship was like no other. Unheard of really. He made sure Joseph looked people in the eye when he shook their hands. He instructed Joseph to order his sister’s dinner for her when they went out to eat. He even did yard work with Joseph so he could have his first job. Gunny made sure Joseph was a true Southern gentleman.

“Gunny had a lot of friends — everyone liked him,” Catherine says, “My dad and him were so close, he was like a brother. I think Gunny needed that person he could trust, and trust unconditionally, he found it again. [He and Joseph] got along perfectly.”

March 17, 2016

It is the 192nd St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Savannah. Nearing the end of the parade route it’s hard to smile and wave with all of those faces behind you, but as part of the parade you continue to march.

Since Joe and Gunny died, and Joseph isn’t quite old enough to join the parade committee himself, the kids began walking with their cousins, the Conneff clan. Jan’s uncle, Pete Conneff, was the Grand Marshal of the parade the year after Joe died, so his family is allowed to walk in the parade with him year-after-year.

Casey stays with Emerson at the square, but Tayten is old enough to march with the rest of the family. His favorite part is wearing grandpa Joe’s sash.

Jan walks in the parade with her kids now. After Gunny passed she realized she missed the parade. Her kids want her there too, it’s something she can plan on doing now.

Catherine and Sarah usually walk flanked on either side of their brother. Joseph is their buddy.

Joseph is mixed in with his family. He loves it that way. Joseph gets to show his nephew and cousins the ropes just as Joe and Gunny did for him. He makes it his personal mission keep their memory alive.  He steps just outside group of family members to wave at the crowd. He flashes a smile while his eyes dance over the cheering faces.

“I think there are a lot of personality traits born in you. And there are certain things about him, his interaction with people is very much Joe. Joe always had this twinkle in his eye, devilish, like a leprechaun, and Joseph’s got that,” Jan says with a smile.

You can see the nostalgia written all over her face. She is proud of who Joseph has become. He is sprinkled with both of his fathers’ features. Joe’s caring nature and mischievous smile. Joseph never meets a stranger, he gets that from Gunny. Sure, Joe was charismatic, but Gunny taught Joseph to get out there and take on the world.

Joseph has slimmed down a lot in the past year. He hoped that meant he would fit into his dad’s green blazer he had outgrown. It fits, in fact, it looks like it is tailored for him. His dad’s sash still sits proudly across his chest, but there is an addition. A button with a photo of him, Sarah and Gunny sits atop his heart.

He’ll be back next year with his family by his side, and both of his fathers’ lessons in his mind.

“It’s just tradition. It’s part of me.”