Thousands enjoy controversy-free Royal Oak Memorial Day parade, ceremony

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — The controversy that threatened to rain on the city's Memorial Day parade and ceremony Monday didn't dampen any spirits.

Ten days ago, two veteran organization commanders told the mayor and city commissioners they weren't welcome at the two events because of a dispute over the relocation of the city's current Veterans Memorial.

But thousands attended the 9 a.m. parade and dozens stayed for the ceremony that followed to honor fallen U.S. military veterans, including the mayor and city commissioners. 

"It's our ceremony and everybody is invited," said Royal Oak Mayor Michael Fournier. "Nobody can be uninvited; it's a public ceremony."

American Legion Post 253 Commander Tom Roth, who was one of the two veterans group officials that signed the email telling the mayor and city commissioners they weren't welcome at the event, said he wasn't upset they attended. It's open to the public, he said, and they were welcome to be there.

Members of the American Rosie the Riveter Association march along Main Street during the Royal Oak Memorial Day Parade on Monday, May 31, 2021.

"But their presence was not welcome in our presence," he said. "We sent the email to let them know we weren't happy with the way they were suppressing the vote and they way they're handling the memorial.

"But on Memorial Day, it's not about me, it's not about the American Legion, it's not about veterans. It's 100 percent about those who made the ultimate sacrifice."

The controversy stems from the city's effort to move its Veterans Memorial in Centennial Common to another site 40 feet away because it doesn't fit in with city architectural plans for the public area. Veteran groups oppose the move because they feel it will make it more difficult for people to visit or attend future ceremonies. The groups also cited the city’s refusal to honor a 2007 initiative, including private funding, to maintain the memorial at its current location.

Fournier said he understands the issue of relocating the memorial has angered some, but at the end of the day "we're all one team."

"When this gets all settled, I look forward to catching up with Mr. Roth and having a beer," Fournier said. "Our support for our veterans is unwavering and this isn't going to affect it."

Roth said Monday's parade was beautiful, he thought it went very well and the ceremony was excellent. "It was well-attended and there were a lot of people on the street, which was great to see finally," he said. 

Michael James of Royal Oak waves his flag to members of the Royal Oak High School Band along Main Street during the Royal Oak Memorial Day Parade on Monday, May 31, 2021.

He also said he's more than willing to keep up the fight on the issue tomorrow and the next day.

Last week Tuesday, a group of veteran organizations and city residents filed a lawsuit in Oakland County Circuit Court against the city, seeking to have the site of the memorial decided by voters in November.

Before that, veterans conducted a petition initiative and collected enough signatures to have the matter voted on by the commission or placed on a citywide ballot. But officials have not recognized the number as sufficient and cited other reasons to refuse the petitions, including wording on the petition they felt was vague or misleading.

Despite the debate, thousands turned out to see the marching bands, fire trucks and police vehicles in the city's parade. Dignitaries, including Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard were also in the motorcade.

This year, the parade celebrated its 100th anniversary. The city is also celebrating its 100th anniversary. 

Monday's parade started at Main Street and Lincoln Avenue, headed north to Third Street and ended at Royal Oak City Hall on the corner of Third and South Troy Street.

"We had a fantastic crowd," said David London, chairman of the event committee that organized the procession. "We had thousands there."

He said the committee promoted the parade, but not too much, because it was hoping for a good turnout but didn't want the number of people to make it too hard to social distance.

"I don't have a final tally, but we had a lot more people there than we anticipated," London said. 

A large crowd gathers at Royal Oak City Hall during the city's 100th Anniversary Memorial Day Observance on Monday, May 31, 2021.

One of the highlights was a flyover by pilots with the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum in Detroit. London said the aircraft were used to help the Tuskegee Airmen train for their missions in World War II.

Royal Oak resident Adam Mitchell, 46, enjoyed the parade from a spot on Main Street near Third. 

"It's wonderful to be outdoors, to enjoy the weather and to see other people," he said. "I am happy I'm vaccinated and I hope everyone who isn't wearing a mask is vaccinated. And I hope everyone is enjoying this."

Pamela MacLean, 46, watched the parade as it traveled down Third Street with her two daughters, Jazmin, 9, and Dezalina, 10. She said she hadn't been to the city's Memorial Day parade for a few years. 

"I think it's awesome we can be here and we don't even have to wear our masks because so many people have been vaccinated," she said. "I feel like this parade is more important this year because there aren't many people going out, so I'm glad I brought the kids out to support veterans and their families."

 Lauren Jones, 33, and her 2-year-old son, Finn, waved at the people on parade floats that passed in front of them. She said she was feeling a lot of emotions while watching with Finn.

Members of the Royal Oak Honor Guard fold the American flag at Royal Oak City Hall during the city's 100th Anniversary Memorial Day Observance on Monday, May 31, 2021.

"This morning was the first time my son has been able to enjoy a public celebration of our country," she said. "COVID hit when he was 6 months old, so this was new to him.

"Watching Finn take in the planes, marching bands, and army vehicles was the first time I’ve felt like our beautiful country is truly getting back to normal. The past year and a half has been ugly, and the energy and joy of a parade was exactly what we needed."