Seniors: Chatham's Sitkins Celebrate Their Glorious Eleventh

By: Jennifer Sexton

Topics: Aging , People , Holidays

Irwin and Helen Sitkin in their July 4 regalia.  FILE PHOTO

As thousands celebrated the glorious Fourth at Chatham's recent Independence Day Parade, Helen and Irwin Sitkin of Chatham were celebrating their glorious Eleventh.
The self-proclaimed snowbirds rose the morning of the parade and donned their red, white and blue Uncle Sam and Mrs. Uncle Sam costumes for the 11th consecutive year and helped spread patriotic cheer before, during and after the parade by posing for photos with parade-goers, giving high-fives and handshakes, and inspiring smiles and cheers everywhere they went.
How did this kind, understated couple in their mid-80s become a pair of well-known, sought-out, annual costumed ambassadors of Americana?
Irwin explains that it all began during one of their journeys back north to Chatham from their Florida home, where they spend seven months of very year. The couple decided to stop off in Virginia to visit with one of Irwin's former fraternity brothers, whose wife happens to have a colorful calling in life.
“She's a clown,” explains Helen, smiling. “She and her husband had participated that year in a parade in their town near Chesapeake Bay dressed in patriotic red, white and blue clown costumes.”
“We said it was just adorable and exciting,” Irwin recalls. On an impulse, the Sitkins asked to borrow the costumes with the plan of donning them in Chatham for the next Independence Day parade. “When the time for the parade drew near, however, we hesitated. We were kind of conservative. As we prepared to do it, we kept ping-ponging back and forth, asking each other, 'Are you ready to go? Are you really ready to go?'”
Go they did, and it was quite an experience. The couple drove downtown, parked their car and began to walk up and down the parade route as the crowds prepared to watch the parade.
“We were very excited by it! We made everyone smile,” Irwin says. “Everyone who saw us gave us a thumbs up or asked us to take a photo with them or with their babies and children. We really felt we were a part of Americana. People loved it, and we had a wonderful time.”
As the winter approached that year, however, the time came to journey back down south to Florida, stopping off in the town near Chesapeake Bay along the way, as agreed, to return the costumes which had provided such an adventure. The Sitkins' career as costumed crusaders seemed to have come to a close. At least that's what they thought. However, word of their parade high-jinks had traveled, including the enjoyment it had brought to parade-goers as well as to themselves.
“Our daughter is very creative, and she decided to buy a pair of terrific, just wonderful costumes for us and have them sent to us,” Irwin recalls with a smile. “She didn't say anything. They were just delivered here to us with the message 'Think you ought to do it again.'”
“They're wonderful,” Helen laughs, “And they're one-size-fits-all, so we have to pull them up or pull them down to fit.”
Mr. and Mrs. Uncle Sam were back in business, and on the morning of the next Independence Day Parade they once again donned the red, white and blue and made their way up and down the parade route, bringing cheer to all they encountered. Their encore adventure was so much fun that they've returned to do it every year since.
“We see everyone at the parade,” Irwin says. “It's a time to catch up with friends and bring some happiness to people. There's another man who dresses as Uncle Sam every year and even goes so far as to paste a beard on his chin – we look for each other in the crowd every year.”
The Sitkins were especially impressed with this year's parade.
“There has been so much negativity in the news lately, including this very divisive presidential campaign,” Irwin says. “We met so many young couples at the parade with young kids who were beautifully dressed in their red, white and blue, and very well-mannered. It was very reassuring to us as citizens and as Americans to see that and to be a part of it. We don't walk all the way up and down the whole parade route anymore. We love to just sit there and watch America go by.”