Montauk’s 51st annual Friends of Erin St. Patrick’s Day Parade will kick off at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, and this year’s title of Grand Marshal, the mightiest of men charged with the ever important task of leading the legions of green on the fateful stroll from Edgemere Road to Main Street, has been bestowed to none other than Jack Perna. The soft spoken school administrator, who has served as Superintendent of the Montauk School for the past 18 years, will carry the big shillelagh whilst wearing the traditional parade sash and top hat. Like so many humbled and honored Grand Marshals who have stepped before him, “I don’t think it will really hit me until I actually face Main Street,” he said in his pre-parade interview.
Leading the St. Paddy’s Day parade has been described by many a Montauker bestowed the honor in years past as a magnificent and awe-inspiring experience. With a kickoff near the firehouse on Edgemere Road, the parade route extends past the Trail’s End Restaurant, loops by the post office, and turns from there to Main Street, where as many as 40,000 people have been known to congregate to observe what has been dubbed by the Montauk Friends of Erin as “the second largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York State.” Should Perna succumb to petrification, the Friends of Erin have marked the way with a green line that runs the length of the parade route.
Perna has spent most of his life in Montauk, having moved here as a child in 1958. He attended the Montauk School for a year prior to transferring to Little Flower School, a Catholic institution that has since shut its doors. With the school, he marched as a sixth grade student in the first Montauk parade in 1963.
He would re-enter the Montauk School later, in 1972, as a fourth grade teacher, shortly after his graduation from Southampton College. The 1978 Grand Marshal and then principal Bob Fisher encouraged him to obtain a degree in school administration—which he did, from Long Island University in 1977. He began a career as an assistant principal in 1978 and took the helm as superintendent for the tiny district, with a population of about 350 students, in 1995.
Perna said he was taken by surprise when the Friends of Erin broke their unofficial conclave and asked him to serve as this year’s Grand Marshal. “I was home and got a phone call from Pat Maloney,” a Friends of Erin member who works as a custodian. “I thought there was something wrong at the school,” but soon found otherwise.
As a grandson of Ralph Giordano, who owned the Pizza Village and the Lakeside Inn, most recently incarnated as The Surf Lodge, Perna is no stranger to the food business. He worked a second job for most of his career, purchasing Pizza Village from his uncle, Dr. Dan Vasti. For the next 20 years, Perna dutifully donned a blue collared shirt, trading his jacket and tie for an apron after the final bell at Montauk school and serving up dinner to families of many of the students he was charged with during the day. He sold the business in 2000, and since then has been semi-retired, with one full-time job as a school administrator.
Among his other achievements, Perna became a certified school counselor in 1990—a certificate that comes in handy in his position. He has served as a member of the Board of Directors at Montauk Youth, on the hamlet’s Chamber of Commerce, the Citizen’s Advisory Committee and the Third House Nature Center. Additionally, he is a trustee at Montauk’s Fort Hill Cemetery, and has served on East Hampton Town’s anti-bias task force. On Sundays, he teaches religious education at St. Therese of Lesieux.
Considering his history and ties to the community, it’s a sure shot that there will be plenty of familiar faces to cheer Perna on as he approaches the sea of green on Sunday. With so many former students, “I would hope I would recognize a lot of people,” he chuckled.