It was hardly a good day for a parade. The air Saturday was cold, and the steady rain that fell made it feel colder. But that didn’t stop 98-year-old Mary Virginia Federal from sitting atop her family’s float in Charlotte’s 19th annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.
There’s no disputing, Mary Virginia is the beloved matriarch of the sprawling Federal family – based largely in Charlotte, but now parceled out across the country – that uses the parade weekend as a draw to convene its annual reunions.
Saturday, about 175 Federals and extended family and friends marched alongside the float, many playing plastic shamrock-shaped “air guitars” – and shouting “We’re shamrockin’.”
Always presiding above in a wheelchair was Mary Virginia dressed in a green raincoat, with son Keegan Federal Jr., an Atlanta lawyer and former Superior Court judge, holding a green umbrella to shield her from the rain.
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Thousands lined Tryon Street as the parade moved north to south, with a steady procession of bagpipe bands, Irish fraternities, politicians including Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter and Mecklenburg County commissioner Ella Scarborough, Irish dancers and beauty queens.
Mary Virginia waved to the crowd.
“I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” she said. “A little bit of rain is not going to stop me.”
It was her youngest child of nine, Mark, who came up with the idea of placing a family float in the parade and using the event to pull the family together from around the country.
The idea sparked after Robert Joseph Keegan “Joe” Federal Sr., Mark’s father and Mary Virginia’s husband, died in 2003.
“It was a way to keep the family together,” Mark Federal said. “When a family goes astray, that’s hard to do.”
It doesn’t take much to build a substantial representation of Federals. Keegan Sr. and Mary Virginia met at a Tryon Street shoe store in 1920, when he was 5 and she 3, said Molly Federal, a daughter.
Ancestors of both had moved to Charlotte from Philadelphia and Maryland, Molly said.
“Their mothers recognized their Philadelphia accents,” she said. “That started a great friendship.”
Mary Virginia and Keegan raised nine children in Columbus, Ga., Chicago, then Charlotte. Now Mary Virginia has 24 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
“Quite a few of them are here today,” she said. “I love being with them.”
Saturday was the 11th float the Federals entered into the parade. They rented the first few, then Mark and brothers Michael and Lenny – popular Charlotte musicians and songwriters – and cousin Chuck Federal of Charlotte found one to buy in North Charleston and hauled it up to Charlotte.
They give it a new theme each year.
Saturday, Lenny and Michael were supposed to perform on the float. But the rain shorted out an amplifier, so the air guitarists did their best to perform “Shamrockin’.”
The parade isn’t the only reunion activity. Friday night, Mary Virginia hosted a fish-fry that drew 100 Federals, relatives and friends.
Saturday night, there was a reunion party at a tavern on Morehead Street, where each year a cousin who wrote a song that includes every member of the family is coaxed into singing it. The song takes about 15 minutes, “but only because we’re laughing so hard,” Chuck Federal said.
Sunday, they’ll meet for brunch before heading home.
“We all have a big time,” Chuck said. “It’s just a chance to get together and make sure all the cousins know each other. We keep the family alive that way.”
After her sons helped her down from the float about noon Saturday, someone ask Mary Virginia if she was going home to take a hot bath.
“No, I’m going to the festival,” she responded. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
Daughter Molly shook her head.
“Mama enjoys this as much as any of us,” she said. “She loves being in a crowd. She should – she and daddy sure created one.”