The Teddy Bear Parade celebrates its 30th birthday Sept. 29

by: OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Teddy bear fans watch the Teddy Bear Parade in 2011.If ever there was a Kodak moment to capture the essence of the Teddy Bear Parade, Pat Fiedler was without a camera.

“There was a 60-year-old woman one year who unfolded her lawn chair on the street to watch the parade and propped her teddy bear next to her,” Fiedler recalled. “I didn’t have the time to take a picture, but to me, that’s the joy in it — the simplicity.”

Thirty parades later, it’s still a simple love fest that speaks to the child in all of us. Folks bring lawn chairs and blankets, prop their favorite teddy bear in their lap and bear witness to what has become a treasured community tradition held every year the last Saturday in September.

But these days, the Teddy Bear Parade is welcomed by nearly 5,000 spectators along the route in downtown Gresham, with more than 90 entries from area schools, equestrian groups and youth organizations.

It’s a far cry from what Fiedler, the parade’s Mama Bear, ever envisioned.

Fiedler and husband, Dale, were new business owners in downtown Gresham in 1982. Their eclectic children’s store, called the Toy Bear Ltd., sat anchored on the corner of Main Avenue and Second Street, and quickly became a hub for community engagement. The Toy Bear’s soft-spoken owner also earned a reputation as the go-to gal in organizing downtown events.

So when construction to change Main Avenue from a one-way to a two-way street began in 1983, Fiedler linked arms with neighboring shopkeepers to create new marketing strategies to attract customers. The battle cry among merchants to shoppers was to “bear with us” during construction.

But what Fiedler really felt was needed was a “happening.”

“There had been a lot of parades for veterans and things in downtown before that,” Fiedler said. “Bob Wright (owner of the former Bon Ton Barber Shop) got in touch with us with some tips on how to do a parade. We thought it sounded like fun, but still had no idea how to do it.”

Undaunted, Fiedler and a committee of people she refers to as those “who unfortunately knew me” — including husband Dale, Carole and George Klinger, and Bill and Mary Hay — met at St. Henry Catholic Church to launch the first Teddy Bear Parade in September 1983. Fiedler laughs recalling how their lists of parade entries were composed on an old IBM Selectric Typewriter and carbon paper.

But she was unprepared for how eagerly the community embraced the idea.

“I was really surprised when all the people who signed up were there so early,” Fiedler said. “I told Dale, ‘People must really like a parade,’ but it was panic for me. I’d never directed traffic before.”

Marching through the learning curve

Managing the parade was trial and error those first few years, Fiedler said. The committee quickly learned that “directing traffic” meant more than just getting the assembled participants out of the starting block.

“We didn’t think to station somebody at the end of the parade route to tell people what to do,” Fiedler said, laughing. “All of a sudden, the entire parade came to a standstill because the participants at the end didn’t know where to go. We also didn’t think about stopping traffic on Main Avenue. Marijo Hessel (owner of the former Cloudtree & Son) brought out a bolt of ribbon and strung it across the street to keep the cars out. We were really just playing parade at the time.”

The parade was initially the finale for what was then called Children’s Week. Merchants hosted family activities at their stores in celebration of children the preceding week, offering face painting and games. The Toy Bear hosted a book signing by a notable children’s author, who also served as grand marshal in the parade.

But as the Teddy Bear Parade’s reputation and participation grew, so did concerns over insurance liability. The former Downtown Boosters association had been underwriting the parade’s insurance, but eight years after Fiedler and her band of friends began “playing parade,” Fiedler realized the scope of their homespun event.

“The insurance agent for the Boosters called and said the parade was too big for them to cover,” she said. “This was two weeks before the parade. I promised him if he would insure us one more year, I would get another insurance policy.”

Members of Soroptimist International of Gresham, a service organization of professional women, had been the worker bees for the parade for several years, painting bear paw prints along the route and providing support.

They took over the event’s execution in the early 1990s. Fiedler bowed out after 10 years of overseeing the parade and remains grateful to the Soroptimists for continuing the tradition.

“It would have ended after eight years if not for the Soroptimists,” she said. “I’m in awe over the organization it takes to do this parade, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how (Soroptimists) do it. All the businesses have so much else to do, so I’ve always been very grateful to them.”

Ginger Abbs, a member of Soroptimist International of Gresham, has co-chaired the group’s parade committee for five years. The event, she said, is a highlight for the organization and the one they are most proud of.

“It’s a fun time for everybody, regardless of their age,” Abbs said. “It brings energy and smiles to downtown and gives the kids a sense of pride in their community. It also gives them a good feeling about where they grew up. It’s such a positive thing.”

In honor of the Teddy Bear Parade’s 30th birthday, Soroptimists will sell commemorative T-shirts for $10 each. The shirts, emblazoned a teddy bear and reading “Celebrating Gresham since 1983,” will be available while supplies last at North Main Avenue and Third Street.

Fiedler closed the Toy Bear in 2006 and is now semi-retired. Though no longer directly involved with the parade’s mechanics, she is thrilled that the essence of her “happening” is still happening.

“Bring a little chair and your bears,” she said. “There’s something about a parade that brings out the child in everyone.”

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