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A Look at How and Why We Dye

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By Tony Boylan

Nobody thought much of the feat at the time: the brief and abortive effort to dye the Savannah River green on Saint Patrick's Day of 1961.

It was a cold day--so windy that the boats casting dye into the water had trouble getting into position. The navy helicopter donated to hover over the river to fan out the dye was hardly necessary given the sharp gusts of wind. Realizing their actions were having little effect, the boaters gave up the mission and turned back early.

Witnesses reported seeing a faint green hue that lingered for about ten minutes before the color dissipated. Savannah mayor Malcolm Maclean declared the river officially green, partly in jest but more in disappointment, before 3,000 underwhelmed spectators drifted away.

The lone exception was Tom Woolley, the hotel restaurant manager who had conceived the stunt, which was described in the Savannah Morning News as "a new milestone in Irish shenanigans." From the superfluous helicopter, where he sat with Miss Georgia and Miss Savannah, Woolley saw the dye form a sort of zebra pattern in the water before being washed away in the tide.

He thought it could have worked, on another day with a little less wind. But a job in North Carolina called Woolley away, and despite promises to the contrary, nobody ever tried to dye the Savannah River green again.

Woolley had come up with the idea only two weeks before Saint Patrick's Day. No stranger to promotional gimmicks, he recalls pitching it to the city's most prominent Irishmen: "No one knows the heritage of the Irish in Savannah. They always think of New York and Boston. You have a big day, but nobody knows about it but you guys."

A local chemical company donated the dye, and the Coast Guard and more than two dozen private boat owners lined up to dump it in the river. "The final result of the experiment was not as the originator had hoped, but the river did turn a shade of green," according to the book The Days We've Celebrated: St Patrick's Day in Savannah by William L. Fogarty.

Organizers of the celebration shrugged off the failure. They were, after all, responsible for the oldest Saint Patrick's Day parade in the world. Though known more for cotton than corned beef, Savannah has observed the date since 1813. Chicago's parade is believed to be the sixth oldest, started in 1843.

After serving as honorary chairman of Savannah's parade that year, Woolley parlayed his experience into a consulting expertise in dyeing things green. The next year he was hired to make the greens even greener at Augusta National for the Masters golf tournament. Later he discussed his experiences as a guest on the game show I've Got a Secret. And according to Woolley, Savannah's 1961 embarrassment was reborn as a Chicago trademark every bit as recognizable as the Sears Tower or a Cubs losing streak in August.

Though some old-guard Irish refute his claim, Woolley says he personally proposed the idea of dyeing the Chicago River green to Mayor Richard J. Daley. Woolley was here in the spring of 1961 for the annual restaurant trade show at the old McCormick Place, and before leaving town he held a meeting with Daley and his staff.

Woolley says he can't remember who was at this meeting, except, of course, old man Daley. The discussion began without the mayor, as Woolley explained the dyeing process. When the Boss finally showed up, he needed convincing. "He thought the idea was harebrained at first," says Woolley, who's now retired and living in Sarasota, "until he heard more about it." A request to supervise the inaugural dyeing in 1962 was turned down due to other obligations, Woolley says. But his plan went on without him.

This is where the muddled history of Chicago's dyeing tradition becomes even more uncertain. Some of the original dyers say they were coloring the river as early as 1957. Newspaper articles have stated the tradition dates back to 1961, though most accounts tend to sidestep a specific year. Archive searches of both the Tribune and the Sun-Times, as well as the Chicago Historical Society, reveal no mention of the Chicago River being anything other than its natural shade of green before 1962.

"That sounds like a bunch of blarney," scoffs Mel Loftus, 75, a longtime parade administrator who retired from the event in the 1980s. "If things went as bad in Savannah as this guy says, why would we have wanted any information from him?"

Loftus contends the local media must not have picked up on the tradition until its fifth year, in 1962. Yet in the early 60s both papers included minutiae about the parades, including the observation that the center line down State Street had been painted green.

"You know, it's pretty cold on Saint Patrick's Day,'' Loftus says, suggesting the scribes assigned to cover the parade might have been imbibing with revelers at a downtown bar. "Maybe the guys who were supposed to be writing about it were somewhere getting warm and didn't see the river."

The most commonly accepted story of how the tradition began--what Loftus calls the "best story"--seems true to the Chicago traditions of clever union bosses, Irish innovation, and neighborhood cronyism. Legend has it that city workers were using a dye to determine how much sewage was running into the Chicago River. Stephen Bailey, business manager of the Chicago Plumbers Union and chairman of the Saint Patrick's Day Parade from 1958 until his death in 1966, found out what they had done. Apparently more interested in the color than the pollution, Bailey, a boyhood friend of Daley's from Bridgeport, came up with the idea of dyeing the river green on the day of the parade.

Another legend--one that Bailey is said to have spread himself--has Daley wanting to dye Lake Michigan green, a notion he had to be talked out of because the task was too large and the water couldn't be seen from the parade route. There's also debate about what kind of dye was used. Some reports say a harmless vegetable dye has always been the choice. Others claim the first tries involved a toxic, oil-based dye that kept the river green for days.

No matter what the history, the dye works in the Chicago River because the current flows backward, the engineering feat performed at the turn of the last century. This public health service--meant to keep sewage out of the lake's drinking water--has made the river ideal for holding dye just about a day.

Current Chicago parade coordinator Jim Sullivan isn't sure how the tradition started. That's why he'd like to put together a written history of the parade, not only to settle disputes such as this one but to provide a record of events for future Chicagoans. His goal takes on a special urgency considering the advanced age of anyone associated with the parade in the 1950s and '60s.

Here's what is certain. This year, as in so many past, a team led by former city worker Mike Butler will pull out from the North Branch of the river at about 9 AM on Saturday, the day of the parade. Butler will be in the lead boat, while his son, Mark, and Tom Rowan Jr., the son of another veteran river dyer, will follow in a second craft. They'll first gauge the current, then the men in the first boat will drop dye into the water using old coffee cans and a flour sifter. The second boat will skim over the dye like a mobile Mix Master. Forty pounds of vegetable dye will turn the bilious green to an emerald hue that would make a leprechaun proud. Dressed as city construction workers, the crew will finish the job covered in Protestant orange and kelly green. Butler has noted that even his urine carries a festive green tint for several days afterward.

The dyeing of the river is now an event known round the world. A few years ago Disney even flew Butler's men to Dublin to dye the Liffey green. The dispute over who did it first boils down to a problem inherent in oral history, especially in the hands of the Irish, who are known to expand the facts to shape a good story, says Richard Pugh of the Chicago Historical Society.

"The culture of the Irish was preserved without the benefit of a reference library," Pugh says. "If there is a bit of enthusiasm behind a historical assumption, it's for the community's interest."

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