Zany local group marches in inaugural parade

By Rachel Small

In 2003, the group of friends marched in front of then-state-Sen. Barack Obama at Chicago’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, pushing their signature zany lawn mowers.

On Jan. 20, they marched at his presidential inauguration.

The Lawn Rangers hail from central Illinois and usually march at much smaller events than a presidential inauguration. However, during the 2003 Chicago parade, University physics professor and Lawn Ranger Mats Selen snapped a photo of Obama holding aloft one of the toilet plungers they were using.

“We got a great picture of him with the toilet plunger,” said Tom Bruno, at-large Champaign City Council member and Lawn Ranger since 1993. “It surfaced again this year the week of the election. We think that played a role in getting our invitation to the parade.”

Bruno said the bunch is a “group of fun-loving guys who push lawn mowers and twirl brooms in precision maneuvers.”

Humor columnist Dave Barry, who has marched with the Rangers several times, including at the inauguration, said he was surprised when the group was invited.

“We were by far the least qualified group to be in the inaugural parade,” Barry said. “Or any parade, really.”

Barry joined the group when he was invited by Pat Monahan, who helped found the Lawn Rangers. He said he thought it would be a good topic for his column.

“It sounded really interesting, by which I mean stupid, so I went out, and it was every bit as interesting, by which I mean stupid, as I hoped,” Barry said.

The Lawn Rangers were formed in 1981 when the actor who portrayed the Lone Ranger served as Grand Marshall of Arcola’s Broom Corn Festival.

“The local guys in Arcola wanted to throw together something to be in the parade, and they tied together the idea of ‘lawn ranger’ with ‘lone ranger,” Bruno said. “The brooms part of it is a reflection of the fact that Arcola, Ill. is the broom corn capital of the world.”

Bruno’s son, Evan, senior in LAS at the University, is also a Lawn Ranger and marched in the inaugural parade.

“It’s kind of a goofy, dorky thing, but when you get invited by the President to the inauguration it kind of justifies it all,” he said.

The parade was particularly meaningful for Evan, who volunteered and made phone calls for Obama’s campaign and is a political science major.

“No one believed it was true,” he said about being invited. “We all thought we were getting pranked for a while. I guess (Obama) just really appreciates the good old boys from Arcola.”

Tom Bruno said preparations for the parade began in December when the group found out they would be attending.

“We spent December and the first half of January going through Secret Service clearance and trying to take down our videos off of YouTube so we didn’t get disinvited for the parade,” he said.

Inauguration day was not all cheering fans for the Rangers, who braved bitterly cold temperatures and long waits to march that evening. They also had to stop at the Pentagon and clear security before being bused downtown.

Selen said it was worth the wait. His most memorable moment of the parade came from that bus ride as they watched the enormous crowds while listening to the inaugural proceedings on the radio.

“It was kind of surreal that we were there,” Selen said. “I mean, who are we?”

Bruno said he hopes the Rangers can make another inaugural appearance the next time around.

“I think they’re going to realize that they’re never going to pull one of these things off without us,” he said. “We stole the show.”

Barry was less optimistic when asked if he thought they would be asked back.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I’m sure everybody involved in that decision has been fired, or actually deported.”

Selen, meanwhile, is looking forward to an event a little closer to home: Arcola’s Broom Corn Festival.

“That is really a good party,” he said.