An inspector from Cleveland was banned from leading the Cleveland St. Patrick’s Day parade on March 17 because he gave a wave and a nod to President Barack Obama during the inaugural parade in Washington, D.C. on January 20.

Drum major John Coleman, fire inspector for Cleveland Heights, was suspended from the Cleveland Firefighters Memorial Pipes and Drums because he apparently went against the military protocol established by band leaders while participating in the inaugural parade.

“We were told that because it was a military parade we could not salute the president because he is the commander in chief, and that is against military protocol. I can understand and appreciate that, but I did not ‘salute’ the president,” Coleman told the Irish Voice on Monday.

Coleman, 53, was disappointed when his pipe major issued him with a six-month suspension from his beloved Cleveland Firefighters Memorial Pipes and Drums, which was one of three bands chosen to represent the state of Ohio at the inauguration parade.

Coleman, as drum major, led his hometown parade for the past 17 years and was upset to be told it wasn’t going to happen this year because of the wave and nod he gave to the president.

Coleman, who subsequently resigned from the pipe band after a member leaked the story to the press, said his “little nod and wave” was a natural reaction to Obama’s friendly informal salute and eye contact.

“We were marching along and following signs telling us which way to go and what to do. Then we arrive at the booth that President Obama is at,” said Coleman, whose Irish roots lie with all four grandparents in the west and north of Ireland.

“I understand that he had just gotten into the booth so we were the first group he saw in the parade.”

At this point, Coleman, who was leading his band, glanced over at the president in the grandstand, and they made eye contact.

“President Obama was looking straight at me smiling and waving so I nodded and gave him a little wave but I stayed in stride and I didn’t salute him. It was just a very natural thing to do,” recalls Coleman.

“I didn’t break protocol. I didn’t salute the president,” he said.

Unfortunately for Coleman, his little nod and wave was captured by CNN.  

When the parade came to an end for the Cleveland Firefighters Memorial Pipes and Drums, which is made up of about four dozen firefighters from several local departments as well as civilians, the band manager received several calls from pipe bands around the country saying that Coleman disgraced them by making gestures at the president.

After seeing Coleman’s nod and wave on television, the band manager suspended his friend for six months.

Looking back on the actions that have brought him grief and denied him a place in a band he loves dearly, Coleman said he still does not regret making those gestures with the president. “I would do it again,” he said, “because I didn’t break protocol.”

After word got out that Coleman, a fire inspector for nine years and firefighter for 14 years before that, was getting the raw end of his drum stick, the executive director of the Milwaukee St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Mike O’Leary, extended an invite to the drum major to be a guest of honor at their March 14 parade.  

Although Coleman will not be leading his former pipe band in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Cleveland, he will march with the Ancient Order of the Hibernians on March 17.

Coleman, who will visit Ireland with his girlfriend in the summer for two weeks, told the Irish Voice of his very eventful last visit there 24 years ago.

“I was off the plane an hour and a half and I met, by accident, then-President Hillary.”

Coleman, who played GAA for four years when he was younger, was visiting Christchurch in Dublin. Upon entering the courtyard he saw 150 nurses in uniform.

“Being a fire fighter I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” he laughed.

The nurses invited Coleman back to their hospital that was celebrating 150 years in existence and there he was introduced to the president of Ireland. Coleman hopes his 2009 trip will be as eventful.