Las Vegas Veterans Day parade goes on without its heart and soul

Billy Stojack was always early or on time for meetings, especially when it came to putting the finishing touches on his baby — the annual Veterans Day Parade in Las Vegas.

So when he was late for a session two days before last year’s event, other members of the nonprofit Veterans Action Group sent his son to check on the 71-year-old.

They were still working when word came back that Stojack, a mainstay of the parade for more than 20 years, had died.

First, the room fell silent. Then some board members started crying and screaming.

“I realized that it was falling on my shoulders,” said Jerry Adams, who had coordinated the parade with Stojack for years. “I just have shoes that I don’t think I can fill.”

But fill them he did. And he’s hoping this year’s downtown parade, which begins at 10 a.m. Sunday and is expected to draw a crowd of more than 30,000, goes as smoothly as it did when Stojack was at the helm.

“It’s been tough on the sentimental end because Billy and I worked so closely together for so many years,” the 68-year-old Adams said this week. “He was always a special guy, a hard-working guy, a true patriot.”

The parade is a painful reminder of the friend he lost, but Adams said, “He’d come back and kick our butts if we didn’t” carry on.

In honor of the retired Clark County firefighter and former Navy SEAL, Stojack’s adult children, Ryan Stojack and Kristen Watson, also have established the Billy Stojack Memorial Fund in his memory.

The fund will honor a veteran every year in conjunction with the parade, beginning this year with Navy veteran Ed Wright, and his wife, Rachel, who will be featured guests at the event and receive an all-expenses-paid dinner and stay at a Wyndham Hotels and Resorts property.

“It’s something we’d like to pass down to the grandkids, so he can be remembered for years to come,” said Watson, 41. “He was always helping other veterans, and we want to honor him that way. He’d love that.”

‘We completed the mission’

On the day he died last year, Nov. 9, Stojack called Adams and asked, “How’s my workhorse doing?”

It’s a nickname that Adams, an Air Force veteran who fought in Vietnam, is proud to carry nowadays.

Adams, who suffers the effects of his exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, met Stojack more than 20 years ago through the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the two instantly bonded. They exchanged the kind of Vietnam War stories rarely shared outside of veterans halls.

Stojack, who was bald and had a handlebar mustache, rode his Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the parade each year, always with one of his four granddaughters in its sidecar. This year, the bike will sit next to the reviewing stand, along with a photo of Stojack.

“He loved it, he lived it,” Adams said of Veterans Day. “Just like a few of us do. I hope that when I’m gone, people will think that’s my legacy, too.”

Last year’s parade, still so fresh after Stojack’s death, was an emotional one. Before it began, a riderless horse was escorted along the route, a pair of long, high black boots facing backward in the stirrup.

“We completed the mission. It was the smoothest-running parade,” Adams said. “We were grieving, but we did our jobs.”

‘Pump the brakes’

In the Veterans Action Group’s office in Henderson this week, nine members of the group gathered to finalize plans for this year’s parade.

Adams sat at the far end of the table, his walker by his right side, and Stojack’s 44-year-old son on his left. Ryan Stojack was named an honorary member of the board this year and is the only non-veteran serving. Sitting across from them was 82-year-old Navy veteran Peggy Randle.

“It’s also the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I,” Adams noted of this year’s holiday. “Peggy, you were at the Armistice signing. How was that?” he joked.

“That’s classified,” she responded as the room erupted in laughter.

As the discussion continued, Adams would occasionally interject a famous Stojack phrase that he used to slow down a runaway speaker: “Pump the brakes! Pump the brakes!”

He also offered words of support to his fellow parade planners.

“This is not politicians’ day, it’s Veterans Day,” he said. “Without you, there would be no parade.”

‘Teddy-bear heart’

Stojack was well-known around town; those who worked with him on the parade — coordinating with the veterans group to close streets, employ the Metropolitan Police Department for security and fill out the necessary paperwork — all seemed to love him.

“He was such a gruff-looking guy with a teddy-bear heart. He was so passionate,” remembered Esther Reincke, the city’s special events administrator. “Last year was such a shock, but the parade went off without a hitch, just like he would have wanted it.”

Adams remembers that if Stojack invited you somewhere, you didn’t question it. He recalled a day in November 2003 when Stojack told a group of veterans they were going to a fundraiser for President George W. Bush on the Strip. It was just months after the invasion of Iraq, and U.S.-led coalition troops were still occupying the Mideast country and trying to maintain order.

“He said, ‘Mr. President, if you need me, I’ll enlist tomorrow. All you have to do is let me know,’” Adams recalled.

He remembered the president replying, “Billy, you can count on it.”

Stojack’s son and daughter described their dad as a “crusty old sailor” who collected a variety of vintage military vehicles, including tanks and armored vehicles. They said he got a kick out of driving one of them to Starbucks.

“He loved to get reactions out of people,” Watson said.

His kids still have some of the vehicles, including a tan-colored tank he fully restored that was one of his favorites.

He also had a passion for collecting historical and rare guns, including weapons used in World Wars I and II. He instilled gun safety in his kids and granddaughters, whom he also taught to shoot.

He built tactical weapons and provided training for the police department, the federal government and other agencies.

Stojack was something of a prankster at work, recalled Stanley “Duffy” Grismanauskas, 72. He said Stojack would sometimes rig dummies in the a fire station restroom so that they would fall on his comrades as they took care of business.

He was such a character that author Gregg Hurwitz used some of his mannerisms to flesh out a player in his thriller “Orphan X,” which is slated to be made into a movie. Stojack passed away a few months prior to the book’s publication.

“I hope he’s out there somewhere smoking his Camel wides, spitting tobacco, slurping coffee and smiling that Tommy Lee Jones smile,” Hurwitz wrote in the book’s acknowledgements.

But when the chips were down, there was no one you’d rather have at your side. “We had a hell of a reputation as hard working firefighters,” Grismanauskas said.

“He dedicated his life to public service,” agreed Ryan Stojack, adding that his father was one of the firefighters who responded to the devastating MGM Grand fire in 1980.

At the ranch

Stojack was happiest at his ranch outside Las Vegas, a quiet spot away from almost everything else. He’d nearly always have a cup of strong coffee in his hand, softened with five packets of Sugar in the Raw.

One of his favorite spots was a gunsmith shop he shared with his son. He would spend hours there, sometimes in matching overalls with his granddaughter, Rylan, as she worked next to him on a toy work station.

It was at the shop where he died of a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. His death was sudden, but his kids can now see a certain logic to the timing.

“It’s almost like he planned it,” Watson said. “If Pops was gonna go, it’d be around Veterans Day.”

She added that the support received from all those who loved her dad helped the family pull through. One gathering in particular helped with the healing — an hourslong memorial a few weeks after Stojack’s death where all his buddies exchanged stories about him.

“I lost my father,” Watson said tearfully. “But I also gained 15 to 20 other fathers, because all of these guys knew him and were there for us.”

For more information on the parade or to donate to the Billy Stojack Memorial Fund, visit www.veteransparade.com.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @brianarerick on Twitter.

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