by Stephen Childs
The chief revenue officer and president of commercial operations for NBC Owned Television Stations admits he’s nervous about this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan.
It isn’t that Frank Comerford fears a technical glitch or bad ratings while his network airs the world’s largest parade. Instead, the Brooklyn native says he’s uneasy because, this year, he will lead the procession as its Grand Marshal.
“The privilege of leading the parade is just a spectacular honor – just an amazing thing for me,” said Comerford. “And it’s a very, very exciting, but scary thing because you’re out there in front marching up Fifth Avenue.”
Besides excitement and some pre-marching jitters, Comerford says receiving the nod to lead New York City’s 251st St. Patrick’s Day Parade has given him a pleasant shock.
“I would never have dreamt of being the Grand Marshal,” he explained. “It’s not something you ever would say ‘I’m hoping I’ll be the Grand Marshal.’ But now that it’s happened, it’s great.”
Comerford, who grew up in a then-Irish neighborhood, Bay Ridge, attending an Irish parish, Our Lady of Angels, says he first marched in the parade 40 years ago as a student at Xavier H.S., Manhattan. Since then, he says he’s always attended, or taken part in, the city’s annual celebration of its Irish heritage. For the past 15 years, since Comerford became the general manager of NBC’s flagship station, WNBC in New York (a post he left in 2008 for his current one), he has served as one of the parade’s directors.
“I worked with the parade to keep it on the air,” he recalled. “We’ve expanded the length of it. It’s four hours now. We do a webcast that’s seen all over the world, and it’s just a way of sharing the parade with people who can’t be on the avenue.”
On Saturday March 17, 14 aides from around the New York metro area will join Comerford at the front of the column. Behind them will march New York’s “Fighting 69th” Infantry Regiment, followed by more than 100 of Comerford’s friends and family members (including his eight siblings, wife, and son), followed by the rest of the file.
Because of his Brooklyn upbringing and Irish Catholic roots, Comerford says the honor carries a special meaning for him.
Parish Life Defined His World
“Growing up, our world was described through the parish,” he said of Our Lady of Angels, Bay Ridge. “The parish is where you played sports, it’s where you went to school, it’s where you went to church. It was the source of our identity. It literally defined our world.”
With Sisters of Charity, Halifax, mostly Irish nuns from Boston, teaching him, Comerford says that world, that identity, had a decidedly Kelly-green tint.
“The image of ourselves and the school and our culture and religion was very much from the Irish point of view,” he said. “It wasn’t until I left the school that I realized how focused we were, how Irish it was.”
As a child, he says, he observed St. Patrick’s Day by wearing green and gathering with family to enjoy Irish food and music. Local priests even gave special St. Patrick’s Day dispensations, he said, so that parishioners could eat meat if the day fell on a Friday in Lent.
“It was a celebration; it was a major holiday,” he said. “To me, it was always the harbinger of spring.”
After he ventured out of Brooklyn to attend Xavier, Comerford continued his Jesuit education at Georgetown University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance in 1977. Second to his parents, he calls the Jesuits “the biggest influence on his life.”
Now as an adult, who is proud to call himself an “Irish-American,” Comerford says he sees a deeper meaning in the saint’s feast day. Pointing out that impressed Irish soldiers in New York held the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1762, something they couldn’t have done in Ireland, Comerford calls the event a celebration of Irish Catholicism and a “continuation of the Irish identity” in the face of persecution and discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic.
The location of the parade is significant, he says, because New York “is one of the first places, where the Irish went and were able to, through hard work, determination, and brains and guts, work their way to the top and no longer be a put-upon minority.”
Just as St. Patrick used a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the Druids, Comerford says he sees three distinct, yet inseparable themes in the modern-day celebration.
“We celebrate our culture, our religion, and our involvement in the United States – and New York, in particular,” he said, noting that the day will start with Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral celebrated by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. “To me, it’s heritage, it’s culture, it’s religion. They’re all intertwined in the day.”
Comerford continues to honor his Brooklyn Catholic roots by serving as a member of the DeSales Media Group, the parent organization of The Tablet and The NET.