The “National Christopher Columbus Day Celebrations”
1970s The Committee achieved its goal, and in 1971 Columbus Day was first observed as a federal holiday, in accordance with a bill signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. The 1971 celebration, billed as “The First National Christopher Columbus Day Celebration” was a three-day affair, with the National Columbus Day Committee as the prime mover. It featured both a religious and a civic ceremony on Sunday, with an evening concert at Constitution Hall, a parade on Monday (the new holiday), and a gala concert at the Kennedy Center as well as a “Salute to Columbus” Victory Ball at the Washington Hilton. (More details, and the story of how Columbus Day became a federal holiday, are contained on pp. 5-10 of the WCCA program booklet for 1996.)
The “Second National Christopher Columbus Day Celebration” the following year, 1972, featured addresses by Secretary of Transportation John Volpe, Supreme Knight John McDevitt of the Knights of Columbus, and Italian Ambassador Egidio Ortona, with a dinner and gala celebration in the evening. The next year, the wreath-laying ceremonies for the “Third National Christopher Columbus Day Celebration,” as it was named in 1973, again featured Volpe, now Ambassador to Italy, with music by the Army Band, and a black tie dinner in the evening at the Sheraton Park Hotel.
In the years 1972-1975, the ceremonies were sponsored by Amerito, an umbrella organization of American-Italian groups, along with the Knights of Columbus and the National Park Service. Music was provided by the Holy Rosary band in the last two of these years Then in the 1976 bicentennial year, the American Italian Bicentennial Commission took over the role handled by Amerito, alongside the other two sponsors.
The civic ceremony at the national Columbus memorial followed a special religious celebration at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and included a welcome by Mayor Walter E. Washington, remarks by Hon.Blair Lee, Lieutenant. Governor of Maryland, an address by Hon. Pete V. Domenici, United States Senator from New Mexico, an address by President Gerald R. Ford (who also laid a wreath), closing remarks by Rev. Timothy S. Healy, S.J., President of Georgetown University, and the playing of Col. Charles Gabriele’s “Christopher Columbus March” by the Navy band under the baton of the Secretary of the Navy, Hon. J. William Middendorf II. A “Festival of the Arts” was also held. Supreme Knight Dechant in 1979
The descriptive title, “National Christopher Columbus Day Celebration” would continue to be used in the latter half of the 1970s. In 1978, Amerito resumed its collaborative sponsorship with the Knights of Columbus of the metropolitan Area (DC, Maryland, and Virginia), and the National Park Service. In 1979, an address was given by Virgil C. Dechant, relatively new in his position as Supreme Knight of the K. of C.
By the mid-1980s, Amerito had receded into the background with sponsorship of the celebration primarily left to the Knights of Columbus of the area in collaboration with the Park Service, although with support from Italian and Spanish organizations. The general pattern that had evolved included: posting of the Colors; the national anthems of the US, Italy, and Spain; invocation; a welcome; introduction of guests (usually with brief remarks by them); reading of Columbus Day proclamations from the President and the Mayor of Washington; some kind of entertainment interlude with music and/or dancing; addresses; and presentation of wreaths, escorted by the Fourth Degree Color Corps of the Knights of Columbus. The religious celebration, also with Color Corps participation, has usually been handled separately at a different place and time, most commonly on the Sunday preceding the Monday holiday.