NISKAYUNA — As Niska-Day returns in full force this year, two longtime organizers of the community celebration will lead the way in Saturday’s main event.
Bill and Denise Leader, who co-chaired the annual festival for around 25 years, will be the grand marshals in this year’s parade. For years the Leaders largely stayed in the background, ironing out the hundreds of details for the daylong event. But not this year.
“Bill and Denise were the natural selection for grand marshals after being the event chairs for 24 years,” wrote Jay Rourke, who co-chairs this year’s event with his wife, Rachel, said in an email. “They are so dedicated to the community and NCAP, and continue to demonstrate how to be a community leader (no pun intended). The Leaders built an amazing committee structure that ensured that Niska-Day would continue without a hitch when they handed over the reins, so we’re looking forward to watching them truly enjoy the event.”
The Leaders said that while they’re honored and humbled to be grand marshals this year, it’s also a little strange.
“This is about the committee,” Bill Leader said. “Our role was to shape and form and keep people moving in the right direction, and make sure they’re doing their job, fight the fires when they occur. It’s the rest of the committee that does all the work every year.”
Denise Leader said none of it would happen without the committee or the organizations that contribute to the event.
But both said they are humbled to lead the parade, which kicks off at 10 a.m. at the corner of Cornelius Avenue and Ray Street (behind St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church on Union Street).
This year’s event will be the first full Niska-Day since 2019. It was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and last year’s event was held but in a scaled-down version to limit the crowds.
Prior to becoming co-chairs of the event, the Leaders volunteered on the committee.
After taking over as chairs of the committee, Denise Leader said, she’d often walk her neighborhood with Maria Krause, who had chaired the committee over the years, too, and think up the theme for Niska-Day
The Leaders’ favorite theme over the years was Niska-Day 12, “Niska-Day Rockin around the Clock,” in 1993.
That year’s Niska-Day was by far one of the most fun, they said, recalling how they got local radio legend Boom Boom Brannigan to be the grand marshal of the parade.
In the years they co-chaired the event it underwent many changes, the couple said.
THROUGH THE YEARS
“It’s gotten much bigger,” Denise Leader said.
When Niska-Day started out, the afternoon events took place at Niskayuna High School. But around 15 years ago, Bill Leader said, they moved to Craig Elementary School following work to the high school athletic fields.
“Which ended up working out really well since the property offers access to the Zenner Road soccer complex,” Bill said.
When they moved to Craig Elementary, the committee was also able to bring in amusement rides because it had more space.
And because there was more space, it also offered more opportunities for tents for activities, businesses and other community organizations, Denise Leader said.
She also said that during their tenure as co-chairs, they created a food vendor space so that all the food options were near one another, and that has expanded too. Denise Leader said that when they first started out they had some food options, such as fried dough. Now there are 13 food vendors, offering everything from cotton candy to “BBQ sundaes.”
With a new committee stewarding Niska-Day, the Leaders said they’re excited to see what that will look like.
A DIFFERENT LENS
In past years, the Leaders had been mainly in the background to ensure that all went as planned. And if it didn’t, they found a quick fix.
This year they’ll get to celebrate alongside everyone else, although Bill Leader joked that his wife will still likely end up cutting the cake around 1 p.m.
“We’re going as everybody else in the community,” Denise said.
While they haven’t planned out everything they want to do, it will be a family event, they said.
The Leaders’ three children and eight grandchildren will be there. Denise Leader has already signed up five of the eight grandchildren to have their caricatures done by Phil Singer.
“I’m sure they’ll have fun running through the tents with their baggy, collecting all of the free stuff,” Denise said, noting that they’ll eat cake and probably go on rides.
The couple said it will be great having their family there, including their son, who recently moved back to the area but hadn’t been to Niska-Day since he left in 2005. It will be the first Niska-Day for his children.
But while this year will be different for the Leaders, one tradition the couple will still partake in is going to grab a dark chocolate Dove bar from Guido’s Frozen Desserts before the fireworks happen.
Just seeing how happy people are at the event is what has always made the day special, they said.
“There’s nothing better than 4 o’clock in the afternoon, you pull up your chair outside and you’re looking at a couple thousand people still on the property, and everyone is having a ball,” Bill Leader said. “It’s very rewarding.”
Reporter Shenandoah Briere can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at SB_DailyGazette.