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Diane Gardner Howell

Kings Park residents’ eyes were smiling as the hamlet’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade returned to Main Street. Last year the event couldn’t be held due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Hundreds lined the streets to view the parade, many wearing green and waving the Irish flag.

Led by grand marshals Charlie Gardner and Diane Gardner Howell, the parade featured bagpipe and school bands, Irish step dancers, police officers and firefighters from Kings Park and surrounding areas, representatives from various civic associations and businesses, and more.

The Kings Park St. Patrick’s Day Parade, shown above in 2020. File photo by Rita J. Egan

The Kings Park St. Patrick’s Day Parade will kick off at noon, once again, from Celtic Crossing Tavern on Pulaski Road Saturday, March 5. This year father and daughter Charles and Diane Gardner Howell, longtime hamlet residents, will be leading the parade after waiting more than a year to do so.

Charlie Gardner and his daughter Naval Cmdr. Diane Gardner Howell are the 2022 grand marshals of the Kings Park St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Photo from Diane Gardner Howell; file photo above by Rita J. Egan

That parade hasn’t been held since 2020 when participants were still able to march, and residents enjoyed the event a few days before mandatory state shutdowns due to COVID-19. The parade was canceled last year to comply with pandemic protocols.

The committee was optimistic for 2021 and named Gardner, former Suffolk County commissioner of consumer affairs, and his daughter, U.S. Naval Cmdr. Gardner Howell, as grand marshals of the 2021 parade based on their contributions both in the community and the United States. When the event was canceled, the father and daughter retained the titles for 2022. 

“The parade committee is proud of the Gardner family, longtime residents of Kings Park, for its service to Kings Park and the military,” the committee said in a press release.

Gardner said the family found out about being grand marshals a few months after his daughter returned from her deployment in southern Afghanistan. He said he and his wife were thrilled that their daughter was named grand marshal, and then he found out that he would share the spotlight with her.

“I’m very humbled,” he said. “For us,
it’s just a great honor celebrating my family’s heritage.”

He added he has walked in the parade several times as a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. He said Irish pride is strong in the hamlet, dating back to when the Kings Park Psychiatric Center hospital
was operating.

“I think it’s a great deal for Kings Park, because there are so many Irish families, there’s a strong Irish heritage in Kings Park,” Gardner said. “That goes back to the hospital days. There were very many Irish people who emigrated and then got jobs at the hospital, and more and more of their family members came over. So, there was a large contingent of Irish.”

Gardner knows about the importance of the hospital and its ties to Irish history in Kings Park. His paternal grandmother came from the Buffalo area with her family to work at the hospital around the late 1920s-early ’30s, and she remained working there until her retirement. Gardner met his wife, who is also named Diane, due to the hospital when she studied nursing with his sister at Kings Park State Hospital School of Nursing. 

Gardner is among the third generation of his family to live in Kings Park on his mother’s side, who was from the Baker family. The Bakers have been part of the community for decades. His grandfather was a police officer in Smithtown, while his grandmother raised 11 children. He added the Bakers once had a taxi stand on Main Street in Kings Park, a restaurant near Sunken Meadow, and he had many uncles who were school bus drivers and involved in the fire department, including one who was fire chief.

Gardner worked for Suffolk County for 40 years before retiring in 2008 after 12 years as commissioner of consumer affairs and has been a member of the Kings Park board of education and chamber of commerce. He also is a past chamber president.

He said he and his wife are proud of their daughter, who is currently assistant chief nurse anesthetist at Stony Brook University Hospital. Gardner Howell has been in the Navy for more than 20 years and earned a bronze star due to her participation in active combat. She is currently in the Navy Reserve. In addition to being this year’s Kings Park parade joint grand marshal, she was recently nominated as Humanitarian of the Year by Kings Park Chamber of Commerce.

Gardner Howell said when she decided to return to Kings Park to live, she was happy to return home to a hamlet she said embraces family.

“Even with me being away all those years for military service and school service, coming back to Kings Park really did feel like coming back home,” she said. “So for the [parade] committee to honor me along with my dad just shows you what a great family town it is. It’s very sweet of them to do this to recognize me along with my dad.”

Gardner Howell added in the past the committee has recognized more than one person from a family, including her cousins the Nally family in 2019.

“The parade committee has a way of bringing the whole town together,” she said. “They may recognize a family or a person but really we celebrate everybody.”

The 2022 Kings Park St. Patrick’s Day Parade will feature 20 bands, including 14 bagpipe bands, police officers from Suffolk, Nassau and New York City, local fire departments, various civic associations and businesses. The parade will travel down Main Street and ends at St. Joseph’s R.C. Church on Church Street.