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A Local Life: Harry Allen Schrecengost Jr.

Devotee of All Things Irish Taught Jigs to Thousands

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page C08

Every St. Patrick's Day, he was up early, his tam-o'-shanter propped on his head, his walking stick in hand, ready to take his place in the big parade. He walked the entire route with his wife at his side, tossing candy to the children, smiling every step of the way.

For the better part of three decades, Harry A. Schrecengost Jr. and his wife, Margaret, were at the center of Washington's Irish cultural life, giving dancing lessons, presenting lectures and performances and leading the way up Constitution Avenue during the city's annual St. Patrick's Day parade.

Harry A. Schrecengost Jr. and his wife, Margaret, were named "Gaels of the Year" at Washington's 1980 St. Patrick's Day parade because of their devotion to Irish culture. (Family Photo)

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But the thing everyone wanted to know was, with a name like Schrecengost, what kind of Irishman was he, anyway? For the record, his paternal grandparents came from Germany, leaving him with that unwieldy name, but everything else about Harry Schrecengost (pronounced SHREK-en-gahst) was pure Celtic pride. All you had to do was look in his broad, blue-eyed face to see the map of Ireland.

By the time he came to Washington from his native Pennsylvania in 1961, Harry Schrecengost had been a medic in the Army Air Forces in World War II, a college athlete and a high school English teacher and football coach. He spent most of his career working on top-secret maps and documents for the Defense Intelligence Agency, but when he came home to New Carrollton he left that side of his life outside the front door. His six children never knew exactly what he did.

What they do remember of their father, who died Dec. 8 of congestive heart failure and complications of diabetes at age 80, is a man who was forever laughing, joking and raising the spirits of others. No matter where he was, he always seemed to be having fun.

The Schrecengost household was like a village unto itself, with six kids, an Irish grandmother, visiting priests and cousins, neighborhood kids and pets all coming and going. The family once took in a man and his dog when they couldn't find a home.

In 1968, Schrecengost and his wife -- who was born Margaret McGroardy to parents who had immigrated from County Donegal -- formed the Blackthorn Stick Dance Club, named for a traditional Irish tune, "The Blackthorn Stick."

It all began when an Irish priest from their parish, the Church of St. Mary in Landover Hills, agreed to teach a few authentic dances from his homeland. Several couples met in the Schrecengosts' roomy kitchen, and before long Harry and Margaret had become skilled at reels, jigs and complex interweaving ribbon dances.

Several nights a week, the Schrecengosts invited people to their house for dance lessons. They brought in musicians, organized lectures and began to present a monthly Irish dance party. When crowds of several hundred showed up, they had to move the gatherings to schools and community halls. By the time they retired from the Blackthorn Stick Club in 1994, the Schrecengosts had taught Irish dancing to more than 2,500 people.

Together, they built the first float, with a replica thatched-roof cottage, to appear in Washington's St. Patrick's Day parade, which began in 1971. In 1980, they were named the parade's "Gaels of the Year" for their devotion to Irish culture.

Margaret Schrecengost, who died in 2003, sewed a green leprechaun outfit for her husband, which he donned at every opportunity, probably making him the only 6-foot-1, 240-pound leprechaun in the Washington area.

Over the years, they made several visits to Ireland, and in 1978, the mayor of Dublin presented Harry Schrecengost with a blackthorn walking stick. In May of this year, he made his eighth and final trip to the Emerald Isle.

Besides his nimble dancing, Schrecengost had another talent that made him especially popular with children: He could do a perfect imitation of Donald Duck. He often appeared in costume at schools and traveled as far as New York to entertain at a home for people with Down syndrome.

"They loved my father," John Schrecengost said. "He actually spoke Donald Duck better than the character on TV."

As hallowed as St. Patrick's Day was at the Schrecengost home, the holiday that took precedence was Christmas. Harry Schrecengost's children still marvel at the Christmas miracle that he and his wife managed to pull off year after year.

After the kids were asleep in bed, the parents put up and decorated the tree, assembled toys and placed dozens of gifts beneath the tree. When the children awoke, they found freshly filled stockings and a glowing tree before them.

"It was magical to wake up and see it," John Schrecengost said. "You'd just say, 'Oh, wow!' "

It almost made them think Santa Claus was part of the family.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company