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Model ship helps kick off Wichita River Festival Sundown Parade

A replica of the U.S.S. Salt Lake City is carried by Navy members during the Sundown Parade in front of Century II Friday. (May 31, 2013)
A replica of the U.S.S. Salt Lake City is carried by Navy members during the Sundown Parade in front of Century II Friday. (May 31, 2013) The Wichita Eagle

It was a handmade model ship, pieced together almost entirely from memory.

The USS Salt Lake City – or at least the miniature version of it – was on full display at the Wichita River Festival’s annual Sundown Parade on Friday.

It was part of a Naval contingent that led the parade, the traditional opening event of the nine-day River Festival. Many in the crowd of paradegoers stayed downtown to attend the Koch Industries Twilight Pops Concert, which featured the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and vocalist Chris Mann.

That was followed by the Capital Federal fireworks show.

“Our desire was to make it a fun family experience and have entertainment value,” said volunteer Kim Pennington, who helped organize the parade. “I think we had a great turnout this year.”

Law enforcement officials estimated that 60,000 to 75,000 people were on the scene at the Riverfest on Friday.

Among those who turned out was Nola Bell, 85. The USS Salt Lake City model, which was displayed on the back of the Wichita Navy Operational Support Center’s float, was the work of her husband, Frank. A World War II gunner’s mate, Frank Bell served on the ship for seven years. He died two years ago.

Nola Bell and her daughter, Angela Cooper, rode with members of the Navy reserves to show off his work.

“It makes us real proud,” Cooper, 52, said. “We know that’s what he would have wanted.”

The model, which Frank Bell began working on in the 1970s, has traveled to states all across the country to be displayed in various parades. Nola Bell said he put it together mostly from his own memory of the ship. Bell said she typically travels with the ship to the parades.

Alongside the ship marched about 50 members of the Navy reserves in their white dress uniforms. Most people along the parade route stood, took off their hats and applauded as they passed by. The Navy’s color guard led the parade this year.

“It’s quite an honor to be able to do that,” said Brent Reinhardt, who’s been serving for 41 years. “Usually people don’t think about Wichita having a navy, but we’re here.”

The Navy’s float was just one of the many that filled the hourlong parade this year.

There were pirates on motorcycles, the anachronism of the night.

A Santa Claus in suspenders waved to people atop a white motorcycle being carried by a pickup.

A 30-foot-tall inflatable wolf on top of 100.5-FM The Wolf’s float caused a minor panic at the starting line when it came tumbling to the ground. The float was quickly re-inflated in time for the parade.

A cowboy double-fisting red Solo cups scurried off to catch up with the rest of his group.

Members of the Wichita Police Department’s K-9 rescue team brought their four-legged friends along, frequently stopping to let children pet the dogs.

One of the “Blues Brothers” encouraged people to dance to “Shake Your Tail Feather,” saying to those assembled in front of the Porta-Potties: “Just because you’re by the bathrooms doesn’t mean you’re not having fun.”

And speaking of toilets, Benjamin Franklin Plumbing had a larger-than-life toilet-shaped float full of waving employees.

Setup for the parade, which started as early as 2 p.m., was handled mostly by volunteers, whom Pennington said did a good job. She also gave the Wichita Police Department words of praise.

“They were on their A-plus game when it came to being there and being responsive to our needs,” Pennington said.

Along the parade route, the sidewalks were packed with lawn chairs. By 5:30 p.m., an hour before the parade started, all the prime seats were taken.

Georgiana and Galen Morris of Goddard played a game of Mancala on the sidewalk to entertain themselves before the parade started.

“We come every year,” Georgiana Morris said. “It’s about all we come to at the Riverfest.”

Overall, the parade was well received by festivalgoers, especially the younger ones.

“I liked the pink firetruck,” 4-year-old Audric McKedy said. “It had a lot of writing on it.”

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