30 Seconds … with Jack Schreppler
We recently chatted with Jack Schreppler, the grand marshal for life of the annual Hummers Parade, which is held 1 p.m.-ish on New Year’s Day in downtown Middletown. Schreppler has served as grand marshal of the event for more than 40 years.
Photo by Ron Dubick
DT: Do you ever get tired of telling the story of how the parade started?
JS: I don’t get tired of talking about the origins because it causes me to think about a lot of great Middletown folks who are no longer with us. Folks who started the parade. It just gives me warm memories of my childhood when the parade started and people from some great old Middletown families who have come and gone onto glory. And now my dad is one of them. We lost him two years ago.
DT: So how did it start?
JS: It started with the Sheats family and the Miller family. Julian Sheats and Dutch Miller were partners in a Ford automotive dealership in Middletown. They had a tradition of getting together on New Year’s Day and watching the bowl games and the parades and making funny hats out of Christmas decorations. One New Year’s Day Dutch Miller was sick and couldn’t come down to the party. The Sheats and the Millers only lived a couple blocks from each other, right on South Broad Street. So the people at the party, there were a lot of other families there, decided to march up the street to cheer up Dutch Miller. They did a little bit of strutting like they had seen the Mummers do. And they had their funny hats, so they paraded for a couple of blocks. That’s how it was born.
The Sheats boys, there was Lee, Law and Chip, were about my age. And the family had so much fun doing it that the following New Year’s Day, they said well, we’re going to march up the street again. And they went a little further. Lee Sheats, who was then and still is my best friend, called me and said, We’re gonna parade. Come on over. I told mom and dad about it. Mom went up on the third floor of our house where she had an old trunk and kept clothes that we used for Halloween costumes. And she found an old suit of tails. And she found this hat that dad said was from the Mexican-American War. And I put it on and I rode my bike over to the Sheats’ house. I think I was 15. I’m now 56. And when I got there Mr. Sheats had a sash on that said, “Parade Marshal.” He was going to be the grand marshal. But when he saw my clothing, he said, “Why you look like a parade marshal, Jack, so put this sash on.” I got up front—and I was in pretty good shape because I was on the rowing team at St. Andrew’s School—and I did the Prussian kind of goosestep. I thought it was a one-time thing for a 15-year-old kid to be leading a bunch of grownups. But I must not have done too badly of a job because the next year they wanted me to do it again. At some point, I added roller skates. I don’t know what year that was, but it was probably well after I finished my rowing years. I started that with the four-bangers and now I have the in-line skates. Like most things with the Hummers Parade, I don’t practice the skating.
DT: I heard the name of the parade had something to do with the Philadelphia Mummers. Is that true?
JS: I think they just called it Hummers because we didn’t have any instruments, so we hummed. There was a time when we had a banjo player and we did do some “Golden Slippers.” So, I guess you could say it has its roots in the Mummers, but it really is its own tradition and it has evolved into people using it as a venue to satirize current events. Especially public figures who have stepped into something during the year. This year we have the four-star general, it was an election year … it’s a target-rich environment. It’ll be great.
DT: Is it true that there are no rules for the parade?
JS: Here’s the thing that surprises a lot of people about the Hummers Parade: The reason I think we’ve lasted all of these years is that we have no organization at all. I don’t have a membership list. There are no dues. There are no meetings. There are no requirements. There are no rules. It’s total spontaneity. Everybody there is there because they decided to show up that day. They don’t need anybody else’s permission. They just show up. And I am grateful that people come every year. I am always impressed with the originality of it. And, candidly, if we had rules and meetings, I would have dropped out a long time ago. It’s a great tradition.
DT: What about the thing where folks aren’t supposed to do too much ahead of time?
JS: There is an unwritten rule that you’re not supposed to start on your costumes or floats until the ball drops at midnight. I think maybe that rule sometimes is honored in the breach, but if you look at how the stuff is homemade, pretty much people are following that spirit. The creativity is wonderful. We have occasionally gotten in a little bit of trouble because somebody along the way can be offended by something that’s said or spoofed.
DT: Have you had people yell at you or write a letter to the newspaper because they were offended?
JS: There was an episode maybe five or six years ago. We have a chant that we cheer. The chant offended some people because they thought it was anti-Christian…taking the lord’s name in vain. It has some four-letter words in it that I didn’t allow my children to use except that one day for a year. There were some people who were upset by that. They didn’t hear it, but The News Journal printed it. So there was a letter to the editor and then I responded. Then there was a couple of exhanges and it died down. We haven’t had any more of that. We still do the chant. I’ll recite it for you, but only if you promise not to print it.
DT: So there’s been no further trouble with the chant?
JS: I remember writing in my response that I think the lord cares more about what we do than what we say. The Hummers really is, for the most part, wholesome. The little children lining up on the streets with their parents are proof of that. They love it.
DT: Have you ever considered passing the scepter?
JS: When that happened that year, I was actually thinking about retiring. Not because I was tired of doing it. But because at some point somebody else is going to have to take over. I was considering handing it over to the son of one of my best friends because he lives there in Middletown. It’s Michael Sheats. He’s a lot younger and he’s a Middletown guy and he’d be around to take us well into the 21st century.
Unfortunately that’s the same year that the dust-up came over the chant. I was going to say that was my last parade, but then I thought, I can’t turn over the parade to a young man when there’s this kind of controversy and make him deal with it. So I decided to keep on marching and get us through that. Now I think I’m just gonna do it as long as I can still skate. When I have to take the skates off and can’t skate anymore, that will be the right time to turn over the scepter.
DT: What are your responsibilities as grand marshal?
JS: It’s not a lot of work. I call the Town Hall and I say, “Can I have the parade permit?” And they say, “Same time, same place, same route?” And I say, “Yes.” And they say, “All right, you’ve got your permit.” The town has been wonderfully supportive of us. The town police give us traffic control, which in the early years we didn’t have because we were pretty small and the town was a lot smaller. At some point, I guess the mayor said, You really ought to get a permit so we can help out with traffic control.
DT: Has the event ever been canceled?
JS: I remember one year it was bad weather. I was driving down and my dad called my cell phone number and he said, “I hear the parade’s cancelled.” I said, “What do you mean the parade’s canceled? I’m on my way.” He said, “Well Charlie Biggs said the parade is canceled. Charlie Biggs was and is the town barber. And you know in small towns, the barbershop is the source of news. Charlie had called the police station and asked if the parade was going to go on. They said, “We haven’t heard from Jack Schreppler, so we’re assuming that the parade is canceled.” I called the Middletown Police and I got whoever was on duty. I told him who I was and he said, “Well, the parade’s canceled. We didn’t hear from you.” I said, “But I have a permit. You don’t need to hear from me, you just need to show up.” He said, “Well, we don’t have anybody to cover it.” And I said, “Well that’s fine because we did it for many years without police protection and it looks like we’re going to do it one more. Have a nice day.”
When I got to the place where we start, which is where the Sheats’ nephew, Clark Beck used to live. We started on the back streets of Middletown at the intersection of South Cass Street and West Cochran Street. And we still start there, even though he lives in Lewes now. It gives us a chance to warm up before we hit Broad Street.
So I got to the place of beginning and the mayor, Ken Branner, was laughing at me. He said, “Don’t worry about it, Jack. You’ve got police protection.”
DT: Some of the floats and costumes through the years have really been the stuff of genius.
JS: There are some families and groups that I expect big things from and they always come through. The Bingham have had some great ones over the years. Like Saddam Hussein in a spider hole. Last year they were red Solo cups. There’s another group called the Oldies but Goodies. That’s some of the original Hummers: Clark Beck and his family. My favorite all-time is one that Clark did. It was called “Hot Hummered Hog.” His crew dressed up as Amish and they had a real pig roast on a float. And at the end of the parade we ate the pig. Another favorite of mine was when Robbie Hutchison, who is the funeral director in Middletown, he danced the whole parade route with a blow-up doll.
DT: Have you ever missed a Hummers Parade?
JS: I have had a couple of substitutes. I’ve been doing it 41 years, but I haven’t done it 41 times. There have been a couple of years when I was younger and on a ski trip on something like that. The two substitutes that I remember are Bob Dunn, who was a classmate of mine at St. Andrew’s School. He actually invented the scepter. That was Bob’s creation. My cousin, Mike Cochran, has done it at least one year. His kids and my kids have done a lot of floats together. When my kids were real young, they thought the parade was cool. Then as they got into the early teenage years, they thought that it was corny. And now that they’re past those years, they think it’s cool again.
DT: Is there anything like it anywhere else?
JS: There is a parade in California called the Doo Dah Parade. And I think it makes fun of the Rose Parade. I’ve read about it. I’ve never seen it. I think they had a briefcase drill team or a team of bag ladies with carts. We’ve had something similar. We had something called “Toro, Toro, Toro,” and it was people pushing lawnmowers doing maneuvers.
DT: What does it take to be a great Hummer?
JS: It takes a great imagination. It takes duct tape. It takes some long johns. We’ve skated through snow, cold rain and we’ve also had some beautiful days. I understand there are people who just can’t take the inclement weather, but the participation is better when we have good weather. But I also really appreciate those stalwart souls who show up every New Year’s Day regardless of the weather because it would be a little embarrassing for me to skate down the street and not have anybody behind me.
DT: Is that a true fear?
JS: Yeah. I have had some dread. Well, what if I’m the only one there? What am I gonna do? And I resolved, You know what? I’m going to skate. But it’s never happened. There’s always folks there. I mean I can always count on Miss Ellen Combs’ fire engine. Her son, Hedley Davis, comes all the way from California to drive that fire engine in the Hummers Parade. And if he’s not there, S.R. Smith will drive it. Those are some great, old Middletown families and it might be the only time I see them during the year. The Hummers Parade has become a bit of a Middletown reunion for a lot of the old families and a lot of newcomers. There’s a lot of folks that move to town and find out about it. Or maybe they don’t move to Middletown but they have friends … I know people who come from Baltimore to see it because they were visiting one time and they had fun. We get a lot of folks who read about it after they’ve seen it and they read that you don’t have to join anything to be in the parade. Just show up and get in line. I think folks at first, Well that can’t be right because in modern life, everything is regulated. But not the Hummers.
DT: I’ve heard some stories. Does alcohol have a place in this event?
JS: Every motorized unit has to have some type of lubrication. (laughs) So, I’ll say that. And I’ll also say this: Sully’s Irish Pub at the Witherspoon opens early on New Year’s Day. And I am there lubricating my skates, so to speak, for anybody who wants to join me. It’s right in the center of town and I have been known to skate right through there on my way. And after I hand out the trophies, I’ll be back at Sully’s for anybody who wants to buy the grand marshal a drink.
DT: So do you notice familiar faces in the crowd year after year?
JS: Oh, yeah. It goes past my parents’ house. I still get to skate up and give my mom a kiss, but I can’t shake my dad’s hand anymore. (He passed away two years ago.) But I love the crowd at what old Middletown folks call the Four Corners. It’s the center of town at Cochran Square there where the World War I memorial is situated, right next to Sully’s Pub. That is an historic spot because Capt. Witherspoon’s inn I think was the first building in Middletown. The original Witherspoon Inn burned and I think it was rebuilt early in the 20th century. Now it’s been beautifully refurbished as an Irish pub. Middletown is so named, not because it’s halfway between Wilmington and Dover. It’s named Middletown because it’s halfway between the Appoquinimink River at Odessa and the Bohemia River over on the Maryland side. The drayer teams would meet the sailing vessels, load the goods and then travel overland and Middletown is the high ground. That is where they would stop to water their horses on their way to the Bohemia River where the goods would be loaded into sailing vessels and then head off to Baltimore before there was a C&D Canal. That’s how the settlement of Middletown was started.
DT: Has anyone ever challenged your eminence?
JS: I’ve not been deposed. Still unindicted. (laughs) I did have one challenge. It was a young man named Will Thomas. The Thomas family has a stevedore business at the Port of Wilmington. Will is in a wheelchair. He’s a sharp guy. He and his motorized wheelchair, he was my assistant grand marshal for a couple years. And he’s got a wicked sense of humor. He said to me, “Schreppler, I’m not going to be your assistant anymore. Either I’m taking over or I’m moving on to a bigger parade.” (laughs) So, he moved on. I’m still here. He’s a great kid.
DT: What kind of feedback do you get for your performance?
JS: I actually get a lot of compliments from people who enjoy the parade and I really don’t deserve the compliments because I have nothing to do with the content of the parade. If I actually had control of the content, it wouldn’t be as good a parade. I couldn’t think of all the things that these people come up with. I will accept compliments on behalf of the Hummers, but not on behalf of the grand marshal.
DT: Where does one find a top hat?
JS: Well, I had a hat from the Mexican-American War and it finally became more duct tape than felt, so I retired it. Last year I went up to a haberdasher on South Street in Philadelphia. I got a genuine top hat. (He looks at a tag inside the hat.) It’s a genuine top hat that’s made in China. (laughs) My daughter taught me how to do the flip (when I put it on.) I think it was about $60. I’ve been through several suits of tails. My mom gets them for me at Goodwill.
DT: I notice it’s missing a button.
JS: Well, everything about the Hummers is slightly shabby. (laughs)
DT: Tell me about the anchors on the lapels.
JS: My dad died two years ago. In World War II he was in the Coast Guard and the Naval Air Corps. I gave the eulogy at my dad’s funeral and I talked about his military service. That first Christmas without Pop, mom presented those anchors to me as a gift. I thought, well, I’m going to wear them in the Hummers Parade as a tribute to my father. That was the year … I give a trophy every year. It used to be that we had real winners. Now, I think everybody’s a winner, so I just buy lots of trophies. I have some angels that help me pay for the trophies. The trophy that year was a picture of a biplane because my father was in training to be a fighter pilot when the war ended. They trained first in biplanes. Pop didn’t get his wings because the war ended and didn’t want to enlist for another three or four years. So I talked about at the funeral that old Pop passed on and now he’s with the angels and finally has his wings. He didn’t have any wings that Mom could pass on to me, but he had his anchors. I just decided to leave them on that suit. That way I’ll always know where they are. So he’ll be with me at every Hummers Parade.
DT: You hit a golf ball down the street a few years ago because of the Tiger Woods’ fidelity issue. Did the ball hit anything?
JS: Yeah. Unfortunately I hit a 10 or 12-year old boy in the forehead. It was a Whiffle golf ball. But he didn’t like it and he threw it back at me. I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore.
DT: Have their been any mishaps over the years?
JS: We’ve actually been remarkably accident-free. There was the one incident with the mini-bike. But all these years, nobody’s been hurt. I always keep the insurance up, though. I will say one of the proudest moments was when Middletown Fire Co. had a fire truck in the parade and in the early minutes of the parade, as we were just heading south on Cass Street, the fire whistle blew. I had to pull the parade over to the side of the street so the fire truck could go by. When we got out to Broad Street, there was the fire truck putting out a chimney fire. It was a year that was real windy. So at the end of the parade, there was a lot of Philadelphia media in Middletown because the Mummers, they don’t go when there’s high wind. So when there’s no Mummers Parade, the Philadelphia media doesn’t have much to do. So they came down to Middletown. That was the year a TV station asked me, What’s the difference between the Mummers and the Hummers? I said, “Well, our duct tape doesn’t look quite as fine as their feathers, but it holds up better in the wind. And while the Mummers were staying home today, the Middletown Hummers put out a house fire without breaking stride.”
DT: So you’ve had more than your 15 minutes of fame?
JS: There have been two articles that have featured me. One was called Mid-State Living. One was a News Journal publication. I was on the cover of one of them. When the one writer called me up—he knew somebody I go to church with—he called me up and introduced himself and said, “I’m doing a story about local characters and from I’ve been told you qualifty.” (laughs) He said, I’ve interviewed some other people about you and I hope you won’t be offended if I tell you…” I said, “I’m not easily offended.” He had talked to Robbie Hutchison, the funeral director, and Robbie described me as an “Ivy League good old boy.” He said, “Are you offended by that?” I said, “No. I take that as a compliment. I said I have my own term for myself that’s similar. I said, “I think of myself as a renaissance redneck.”
DT: Have you ever thought about branching out?
JS: I have had calls over the years from other parades that wanted the Hummers to participate. I recall one was—Hockessin has a parade I think it’s for Fourth of July. They were disappointed when I said, “I can’t do it because I don’t know how to get ahold of the Hummers. First, I don’t think they would do it. But I don’t all their names or their phone numbers. I know some of them.” They didn’t really believe me. They thought I was just trying to put them off. But it’s the truth. I could reach a few, but I don’t think they’d do it. The Middletown Hummers are a unique part of Delaware’s culture and we ought to leave it way.