Dunwoody’s first 4th of July parade, which was held in 1976. (Special)

Dunwoody’s 4th of July parade is the largest Independence Day parade in Georgia. Except for 2020, when COVID canceled it, cheering fans have lined both sides of its 2.7-mile route along Mt. Vernon Road every year for the past 30 years.

In 2019, it attracted more than 2,500 participants and 35,000 spectators from a wide area — all united as Americans to celebrate living in the freest country on the planet.

Recently, we received an email from Steve Kroeger about the passing earlier this year of his mother, Lois Kroeger, who with her husband, Harlan, had organized the very first Dunwoody 4th of July parade back in 1976 to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial. A phone call with Steve revealed the parade’s surprisingly humble beginnings — a story worth knowing for those of us who love the parade.

Since he was only 16 that year, Steve had some gaps in his story. So, I sought out others a bit older who might be able to fill them in. Unfortunately, he was the only living participant I could find. Everyone in the original inner circle had either passed away or moved away. So, his teenage experience was my primary resource, plus several members of the Dunwoody Woman’s Club and the Dunwoody Preservation Trust and a piece on the Dunwoody Homeowners Association website by Bill Robinson, who led the restart of the parade in 1991.

Lois and Harlan Kroeger organized the first Dunwoody 4th of July parade. (Special)

So what happened back then 45 years ago?

For 1976, President Gerald Ford announced a national year-long celebration to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Committees formed throughout the country to plan celebrations. After the political turmoil of the 1960s, Watergate and the Vietnam War, Americans were ready to celebrate.

In the spring of 1976, the Dunwoody Woman’s Club formed a committee led by Gerry Spruill to figure out how Dunwoody would celebrate the year. When someone suggested a 4th of July parade, DWC member Lois Kroeger eagerly volunteered to lead the effort, and she and her husband, Harlan, became the parade co-organizers.

She was a retired Northwest Airlines flight attendant. He co-owned a wholesale furniture company and traveled a lot. Neither had ever planned a parade, and neither had Dunwoody which was 32 years away from cityhood. Many thought it couldn’t be done. And the Kroegers had but a few months to make it happen.

As Steve remembers, they immediately began recruiting neighbors, friends and family to help to recruit local businesses, churches and civic organizations to participate. What they lacked in experience, they made up for with enthusiasm.

“My parents were very patriotic,” said Steve. “They were in high school during World War II, when everyone was united. They were raised to appreciate our freedoms and knew many people who had served and many casualties.”

A float from the first parade. (Special)

Though none of the Dunwoody Woman’s Club members I spoke to were members of the club that year, they all knew Lois Kroeger in later years and had heard the story of the first parade.

“Lois and Harlan had come from the Midwest, where hometown parades were very popular,” said DWC member Kathy Hanna. “Their goal was to start a parade like the ones they remembered.”

The first parade had about 40 individuals in cars, a marching band of musicians from several high schools, a dance band called The Notables on a flatbed truck, swim team floats and clowns led by Steve’s sister, Katie. John Linder, a neighbor of the Kroegers in the Branches and a Georgia State House Representative (later a U.S. Congressman), recruited U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge to be grand marshal.

“Sen. Talmadge was the old Georgia. Dunwoody was the new Georgia,” he said.

Effie Carpenter, the oldest living Dunwoody resident, was the honorary grand marshal.

“She rode in an  air-conditioned car, the only VIP who didn’t ride in a convertible,” said Steve.

Steve Kroeger as ‘Uncle Sam.’ (Special)

One near disaster occurred when the original Uncle Sam moved away at the last minute. Steve was drafted to take his place. His mother worked with a church friend to create the costume.

“It was a hundred percent polyester,” he said.

The DWC ran the parade for five years but stopped when it became too big for them to handle. It restarted under Bill Robinson and the Dunwoody Homeowners Association in 1991. Pam Tallmadge took Robinson’s place in 2005. Dunwoody’s beloved parade has missed only one year since. The DHA is still the main sponsor — along with this newspaper.

Regular contributor Carol Niemi is a marketing consultant and writes about people making a difference in our little corner of the world. If you know someone "worth knowing," email her at worthknowingnow@gmail.com