By Lena Anthony
Photograph courtesy of Kitty Bowers
Volume 147, Number 6, November/December 2013, Page 5
As a volunteer balloon handler for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for the past decade, Katherine “Kitty” Bowers knows which balloons draw the most cheers from the crowds of children watching from New York City’s sidewalks. She has handled some of the most popular balloons, including Hello Kitty and Kermit the Frog, which alone requires 70 handlers to navigate through the 2.65-mile route.
“You can’t imagine the emotion when you’re walking down Broadway in front of all these children,” says the member of the Francis Hopkinson-Monmouth Court House Chapter, Freehold, N.J. “By the end of the day, your face hurts from smiling so much.”
Your legs hurt, too, Mrs. Bowers says. But the exhaustion doesn’t stop her from enjoying a traditional Thanksgiving meal with her sister, Barbara Eckert, a fellow DAR member, and their brother, Charles Eckert, a member of the Sons of the American Revolution. Both also are balloon handlers in the parade. “We let the crowds disperse and find somewhere to get a turkey sandwich,” she says. “We always make sure to have turkey.”
Some years have left Mrs. Bowers more sore than others. In fact, one year she was actually injured on the job. It was particularly windy that year, and Mrs. Bowers was knocked down by an out-of-control candy cane balloon.
“True to show business, I thought the show must go on, so I rolled over and I managed to get myself up and onto the next balloon,” Mrs. Bowers says. “I was walking, but I have to say I wasn’t walking very well. I didn’t realize I was hurt.”
When she was assigned to the Uncle Sam balloon in 2004—her second year on the job—she was unprepared for what an emotional experience it would turn out to be.
“Uncle Sam is not usually a balloon kids get excited about, but what a thrill that year was,” Mrs. Bowers recalls.
That’s because she was holding Uncle Sam balloon with active duty U.S. Marines who had just returned from Iraq.
“At one point we passed a National Guard station on the parade route, and they came out to salute the Marines,” she says. “That’s when tears just started streaming down my face.”
It was an especially touching experience for Mrs. Bowers, who comes from a long line of U.S. servicemen, including her father, who was a submariner killed in World War II. Her husband, who died in 2000, was a Vietnam War veteran. And through her work in the DAR, she volunteers at a veteran’s nursing home, where she plays miniature golf with the wheelchair-bound veterans.
“We have a theme each month, and I always take my costume over the top because I think it’s important to put a smile on their faces,” she says.
Mrs. Bowers joined the DAR because of her love of history, as well as to honor her mother. “She had been working on her application, but we didn’t know that until after she died,” says Mrs. Bowers, who says her own application process was a “true labor of love.”
“I never looked at it as work,” she says, even though acquiring her father’s death certificate from the Department of the Navy proved time-consuming. “It took me 18 months, but I never dreamed where it would take me and the doors it would open. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
Mrs. Bowers also is an avid traveler. She’s been to six continents, including Antarctica. She hopes to make it to Africa someday soon.