Strangers became family on Canonsburg 4th of July Committee

The Canonsburg Fourth of July Committee. Front row seated from left to right: Anthony Colaizzo, Shari Zemencik, Bill Brooks and Tom Shinshasky. Back row standing from left to right: Ray Margiotta, Jeff Shinshasky, Joe Margiotta, Rich Gossard, Susan Hofrichter, Laurie Rigby, Becky Pihiou, Rob Macieko and Jennifer Shinshasky

The Canonsburg Fourth of July Committee. Front row seated from left to right: Anthony Colaizzo, Shari Zemencik, Bill Brooks and Tom Shinshasky. Back row standing from left to right: Ray Margiotta, Jeff Shinshasky, Joe Margiotta, Rich Gossard, Susan Hofrichter, Laurie Rigby, Becky Pihiou, Rob Macieko and Jennifer Shinshasky

It was another typical first Monday of the month meeting taking place in the upstairs of the White Eagles Club in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. These meetings begin the month after Independence Day and continue on-schedule until June of the following year, wherein the frequency increases to every week until the eventual celebration on the Fourth of July. This has gone on for the past fifty-six years since the first one was held in 1962. Now known throughout the rest of the state as the celebration where residents put out their chairs days in advance, the parade and day’s celebration has become a mainstay for citizens of this slice of Americana. Although the complexity in preparation of this holiday has increased, the heart of the organization remains the same.

“When most of us first met, we were strangers,” recalls Co-Chairman Tom Shinshasky, “but we became generational friends, attend each other’s family events, graduations, weddings, there’s a great bond of love here.” Tom is one of the oldest members who has been involved since 1969.

The core of the present committee includes second and even third generation family members, most of which can be traced back to the original Co-Chairmen, Steve Zemencik and Fred Terling (yes, my father), although I haven’t earned the committee stripes that my fellow legacy members have like Shari Zemencik.

Shari started in her early teens taping numbers on cars as her first job and has moved in and out of various roles for the past forty years. Currently, she is the committee’s Treasurer.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA“As the Treasurer for the last many moons, my first challenge is money,” says Shari. “Are we spending too much? What we spend, do we spend it wisely? Do we have enough sponsors and/or donations to cover the current year’s expenses?”

Initially, the parade was small and relied solely on donations from the community and local businesses. The expenses include paying for the parade units, fireworks, security and insurance.

“The first parades I was involved in was a band and a couple of cement trucks with red, white and blue stripes on them,” recalls Co-Chair Bill Brooks, a member since 1972. “Uncle Steve (Zemencik) called me and Tom as we were the only two who could drive stick-shifts on the local convertibles the dealers lent us for the dignitaries in the parade. That’s how it all started for me.”

Throughout the years the committee has adapted to many changes. As elements were added and fireworks displays became bigger and bolder, the need for additional income became an issue for the all-volunteer committee. Things like rain insurance became a consideration if the weather would not cooperate on the morning of the parade or the evening fireworks festivities. This is where corporate sponsors came in.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAReturning to the meeting. Jennifer Shinshasky, Tom’s Daughter and second-generation member, informed the committee that this year she recruited a record number of 58 sponsors. Although this is great news, it also presents an additional challenge of finding banner carriers, two each for the sponsors. That is just one aspect of the preparation that goes into the celebration that tens of thousands show up for every July Fourth.

There is a lot of work that goes into this event from a logistical perspective. This is only a small glimpse into one meeting, on one day a month out from the parade and events.

Being an all-volunteer, member driven organization, there must be more than just the legacy members, or all the tasks simply couldn’t get completed.

“Membership is always a big challenge,” echoes Shari Zemencik. “I think we maybe average 10 to 15 members at the most at our planning meetings. We have additional people that help us just for the parade or the park or the stadium which helps get us through the day. Without those additional helpers, we would be in trouble. We are all getting older and I get concerned that we have enough man/woman power.”

One of the most significant meetings will happen on the evening of July the third. This is when the parade Co-Chairs, Jeff Shinshasky and Beth Brooks-Ludwin, both second generation legacies, will gather the bulk of the additional people who are part of the parade committee. The night before, Jeff and Beth take their volunteers through the parade list, unit-by-unit, review the order and staging locations. With over 120 units, quite an improvement over one band and cement trucks from the sixties, organization is paramount from 7:00 am to 9:30 am the morning of the Fourth.

“The single greatest challenge is keeping it all organized,” confirms Jeff Shinshasky. “It can be organized chaos down there (staging areas). Every unit, whether a band or a car has a particular spot to be staged in and having people there that are experienced and know what they’re doing is a must.”

parade2croppedAs the meeting closes, I reflect on my youth spent with my father, one of the founders and my brother Sean, who was at one time Parade Chairman and is still one of those vital, experienced parade volunteers the morning of the Fourth. I smile as here I sit, not involved in the celebration, yet writing a feature about it. It must be in the blood as many have said when I ask why they still do this.

Tom Shinshasky summed it up, “I remember all the great times and keep making new ones. This is for the love of community and giving families a reason to stay in town and be active on the Fourth.”

As for Shari, “Life gives everyone so many personal challenges that this is a chance to make people happy. This gives all of us second and third generation legacy members a chance to carry on the tradition.  They are like family to me. We all grew up not knowing anything else but this for the 4th of July. I’ve had both of my kids help at one point in time with the celebration. My son still helps. You could say he’s a third generation legacy.”

As for me, this is a special tribute to all those people I haven’t mentioned by name who have been a part of my life because of this celebration. This Fourth of July as I sit in my customary chair in the backyard which yields a perfect view of the fireworks, I know I’ll hear my father’s voice echoing from the past, “We want a boomer.”

Story by Fred Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges