WATERBURY — One day, while helping his father fix televisions and radios, a young John MacDonald picked up his dad’s handmade soldering iron and began using it like a pen to burn a picture into some scrap wood.
And just like that, he realized a talent he had never known he had.
“He let me have that soldering gun,” MacDonald said.
How many years ago that was is evidenced not only in MacDonald’s long, white beard, but in the many wood-burned portraits in his Naugatuck home studio, and hanging at the Ancient Order of Hibernians hall in Waterbury.
This year, the AOH has named its resident artist grand marshal of Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.
AOH Chapter President Chris Casey said MacDonald will be honored at a flag-raising ceremony at Washington Park Saturday before the parade steps off from the club’s Collins Hall.
The parade will proceed from Golden Hill Street to Sylvan Avenue, then to Keefe, to Baldwin Street and Baldwin Avenue, onto Piedmont and Edgewood, before turning back onto Sylvan and returning to the club, where there will be an open house.
MacDonald said his path to AOH membership was similarly roundabout.
He originally contacted the club in the mid-1990s, looking for a bagpipes teacher for his son, Angus, a Waterbury police officer.
“Ever since then, I’ve enjoyed the camaraderie of all the gentlemen and fine ladies there,” MacDonald said.
Then, one day, someone stole the club’s map of Ireland. All the members who liked to brag “My grandparents are from Kilkenny,” or “My family is from Cork,” suddenly had nothing to point to.
So, MacDonald burned one in wood, and it was given a permanent home at the club.
“They really loved that,” he said. “That was my latest.”
His other work includes a bagpipe drum major he dedicated to the memory of police officer Walter Williams III, who was killed while on patrol and whose murder, he said, prompted the formation of the Police Pipes and Drum of Waterbury, which will march in the parade Saturday, with Angus MacDonald in the lead.
“It’ll be a proud day for me, because I’ve known all the band members since its inception and we’re close,” he said. “So it has a special feeling for me, especially with my son being the pipe major.”
MacDonald is working on another wood-burned portrait, but he’s keeping its subject a secret. He has done other ones for club fundraisers and special requests, but he has thus far rejected his son’s suggestions he set up a website and sell his work retail.
“I love doing it to the point of I don’t think about it as any kind of work or labor. It’s quite gratifying to have it appreciated so fondly by my fellow Hibernians,” he said. “They let me keep putting them up, and I love to do them for them.”
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade steps off at 1 p.m. Marching will be the Police Pipes and Drum of Waterbury, the Mattatuck Fife and Drum Corps, local marching bands, dignitaries and floats. At 3 p.m., the Tom Denihan Band will perform at the AOH’s Collins Hall, 91 Golden Hill St. Corned beef meals and sandwiches will be available all day. If the weather is inclement, all bands will perform at Collins Hall.