Michael Bradley: Moving to the Front of the Parade

The saying goes, if you want something done, give it to the busiest person you know.

Within the Irish community, one of the busiest people—if not the busiest—is longtime Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade director Michael J. Bradley, Jr. Bradley has directed the parade since 2002, a time of incredible growth and no small amount of tightly scripted organization, largely dictated by the needs of the television stations that have broadcast the parade.

His son, Colin, is directing the parade this year, but Bradley remains a diligent behind-the-scenes player.

As if coordinating the parade was not enough, Bradley oversees M.J. Bradley Company, Inc., a firm founded by his father Mickey and mother Bernadette, that installs epoxy flooring in venues from research and educational institutions all the way up to stadiums. For most people, that would be plenty. A first-generation student of Penn State—class of 1978—he remains deeply involved in his alma mater, having served on Penn State Brandywine’s advisory board for well about 30 years. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more devoted Nittany Lion than Michael Bradley. (Almost 20 family members, from his sons to nephews and nieces, are or have been Penn State students.)

He also has assumed a leadership position in efforts to keep open and improve the quality of Delaware County’s Catholic schools at a time when an archdiocesan blue ribbon panel was recommending the closure of over 40 parish schools, including five from Delco. He has also served on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia Executive Board of Elementary Education, along with the Cardinal O’Hara High School board.

Bradley also directs a summer Irish festival on Penn’s Landing—another monumental undertaking—and has served on the board of Philadelphia’s Irish Memorial at Front and Chestnut in Philadelphia’s Old City.

Given this litany of achievements, it is perhaps not surprising that in this, the 250th anniversary of the Philadelphia parade, Bradley has been selected as grand marshal.

It is not an honor he would have sought.

“The nomination was a surprise,” he recalls. “I happened to be in the room when they voted, because I am a board member and get a vote. For the first time, I saw my name on there. It was flattering. There was one nomination by Carmel and Barney Boyce (Barney is a previous grand marshal) that really tugged at your heart strings. It was really nice. And Sean McMenamin (last year’s grand marshal) wrote one.

“To me, that was good enough. That made my day. I didn’t really care if I was ever elected grand marshal. To think that people think of you like that, to write nice things … you just knew that, for everything you do, it was worth it.”

At the same time, he expresses discomfort for being recognized. “I love what I do,” he says. “I don’t think you should be honored for doing something that you love and that you put your whole heart into.”

Friends and acquaintances would respectfully disagree.

One friend in particular, Greg Skahan, goes way back. They started at Monsignor Bonner together in 1970 and first got to know each other in sophomore year. They reconnected again at Penn State Brandywine, where they had many classes together.

“We hung around together quite a bit during those two years on the Brandywine campus,” Skahan says. “And then we were roommates on main campus.”

The bond grew even closer years later when Bradley married his wife Linda. “My wife Elaine and Linda are sisters,” Skahan says. “So after years of just being good friends for all those years, we became brothers-in-law.”

Skahan, for one, says he’s surprised it took this long for his friend and relation to be so honored, but based on his familiarity with Bradley he says it’s not surprising that he eschewed the limelight. “To me, it wasn’t a surprise. At the same time, he doesn’t talk much about it. I tip my hat to him.”

The parade board’s recording secretary, Judge James Murray Lynn, is another longtime colleague. Lynn’s sister Alice is a friend of Bradley’s parents. He recalls introducing Bradley to active participation in the parade back in the early ‘80s.

“Actually, it was his mother who asked me about it. She said, Michael would like to be involved in the parade,” Lynn remembers. “How could he do that? And I said he should become a parade marshal. It’s the best way. In that way, he learned from the ground up what the parade was all about.”

In time, Bradley had progressed to being assistant parade director. “He’s so organized,” Lynn says. “He has a lot of balls in the air and none of them hit the ground. He always manages to deal with every issue. And he’s friendly. People like him. He goes out of his way to help the nuns or people who are sick. He’s on top of things. He always follows through.”

Bradley’s love of the parade explains a lot about his interest and later dedication, and that love goes way back. His father marched in the parade with Bishop Shanahan Catholic Club.

“I saw my first parade in 1956. I was born in June. There’s a great picture of the Shanahan Catholic Club marching past in their tuxedos,” Bradley says, “and my mom was pregnant with me, and there was my dad marching by. So I’d say that was my first one.”

Years later came his appointment as a marshal, and that, he says, was the beginning of a long love affair with the parade. “I started out as the lowest of the low,” he says. “I knew no one. I didn’t know anybody on the parade board. I just started out in the street, and I worked up my way to assisting (then parade director) James F. Cawley, Sr.”

Later on, as director, Bradley spearheaded an effort to apply computer technology to the organization of the parade.

Also over time, organization of the parade became more complex. Now, in addition to responding to the television station’s need to keep the train running on time, as it were, there are city and state officials to coordinate with, as well as homeland security and the  National Park system.

Bradley shares the credit for the parade’s smooth running with his wife Linda, who works just as hard behind the scenes, and with the members of the parade board, and all the people, like longtime friend John Dougherty, who contribute to the smooth running of the parade. “Everyone is a spoke in the wheel, and if one of those spokes is broken, it’s not going to run correctly.

As much as he is known for his parade activities, Bradley says he’s proudest of his work with Catholic schools. He’s chairman of the board for archdiocesan grade schools. “When you have the connections that I have,” he says, “it’s very easy to help the schools, and to be able to put people together. You can pick up the phone and call the mayor or you can call certain city council people or state representatives, and really make a difference in Catholic education.

“I can tell you, very few people in my life know me as the parade director. They know my work in Catholic schools because school to me is the number one thing, and education is the way out of poverty. That’s where you can really make an impact on people’s lives and raise the money to help them stay in school. In my mind, the parade director is the job where you get a lot of recognition, but the really humbling thing in my life is doing the work with the schools.”

One person who has seen at close hand Bradley’s dedication to Catholic schools is Father Kevin Gallagher, pastor of St. Denis Church in Havertown.

“I remember during a terrible fire at Our Lady of Angels School in Morton, Michael was there that very morning,” Rev. Gallagher says. “He was part of the effort to move the school to Cardinal O’Hara—not just the brainwork of moving the school, but actually picking up books, picking up debris and moving it, the physical moving of the school to Cardinal O’Hara.

“He is the kind of person who doesn’t just sit on a committee. He shows up, he learns the people, he learns what’s going on and most importantly, he doesn’t waste his time. Michael is the one who always shows up. And it’s kind of hard to talk just about Michael. It’s Michael and Linda, and they’re always there.”

Rev. Gallagher is also the parade chaplain, and so he knows Bradley well from that part of his busy life as well. He was one of many who nominated Bradley for the honor. “I thought there was nobody more deserving of this distinguished moment of being the grand marshal. Most of us get up and literally parade and look nice. Michael’s the one running around, not only making sure the parade is paid for, but run well, and keeping our sponsors are happy.”

For Michael Bradley, it’s all in a day’s work—and the work is its own reward.

“When you see these kids walk up the street and they’re going to be on television, you look at their faces and you know that their grandparents are watching … that, to me, is what it’s all about.”

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