Update: Due to the inclement weather forecast, the parade has been rescheduled for Sunday, March 26.
This year’s Robbinsville Irish Heritage Association St. Patrick’s Day Parade honorees are both Midwest transplants, but they’ve made Robbinsville their home.
Irish Person of the Year Mike Coggins and parade Grand Marshal Renee Burns both grew up in Ohio—and both said they had trouble adjusting to life in New Jersey, at first.
“Growing up in the Midwest, New Jersey is not on your radar,” Coggins said. “The only things you know about New Jersey are stereotypical. There are definitely cultural differences between the Midwest and New Jersey, just the way people interact with each other. It’s certainly nothing overly negative, nothing insurmountable. It’s kind of neat being different. We enjoy noticing the differences.”
Burns and Coggins will both appear in the parade, set for March 26. The day begins with Mass at St. Gregory the Great at 10 a.m., and parade opening ceremonies start at 12:15 p.m. at the Foxmoor Shopping Center. The parade begins at 1 p.m.
Coggins was born in Tokyo—his father, Mike Sr. served in the Air Force—and his family lived there for a couple of years before settling in West Carrollton, Ohio, near Dayton.
“They traveled the world and stayed in exotic lands until I was born, and then the party stopped,” he said.
After Coggins’s dad retired from the Air Force, he used his degree in chemical dependency to work in drug and alcohol counseling, opening clinics and rehab centers. His mother, Patricia, worked for the Kettering Foundation planning meetings and scheduling trips.
As part of her job, Patricia met with congressmen, generals, former presidents and more. It was exciting to be around as a kid, Coggins said, but his mom was always cool and collected.
“She met with them all the time,” he said. “For her, it was leading them through the airport by the ear. She didn’t look at them as a congressman. He was a pain in the butt who needed help getting more towels for his hotel room.”
Coggins graduated from Ohio State University in 1985 with a degree in business marketing. He played the baritone horn in the school’s marching band, which is how he met his wife, Diana, who was a trumpet player.
After graduating, he settled on waiting tables, but a chat with a customer changed the course of his life. She worked for a glass company and helped set him up with an interview for a position in its retail division. That job didn’t pan out, but a position with the company’s commercial component did. He’s been working for China and glass companies ever since.
Coggins moved to Robbinsville from Chicago, Illinois, in 2004 to work with a Princeton-based dinnerware business. He currently works for a company that sells China to restaurants and hotels. Coggins is responsible for his company’s sales in the United States, overseeing six managers and 50 independent agents.
Coggins and Diana have four daughters: Abby, Kate, Lily and Caroline. The girls have played soccer, baseball, softball and basketball, and Coggins has coached them in each sport.
“My favorite thing is teaching something to a kid that they didn’t know before, and they can’t do it when they first try it,” he said. “Maybe that second or third time, can’t do it. Then the light bulb goes on, and they can do it, even if it’s not perfect. For me, it’s not so much that I can see them do this thing that I taught them. It’s the look on their face when they realize, ‘I couldn’t do that two weeks ago, and now I tried really hard, and I’ve done this thing.’”
He said he was honored, flattered and humbled when RIHA notified him that he’d been named Irish Person of the Year.
“I have a beautiful wife who I was very fortunate to win over and have her stick around for the last 20-plus years,” he said. “I’m blessed with four beautiful, healthy daughters. When everybody’s healthy and everything’s working, you can take on almost anything. Stuff like this is gravy.”
Burns, the director of the Robbinsville Senior Center, relocated to Robbinsville in 1997 when her husband, Bob, took a job with Smithfield Foods.
Burns’s daughter, Dawn, was just finishing up college when she and Bob moved to Robbinsville, and it was hard for the couple to make contacts within the community at first because they didn’t have any school-age children, she said. A self-described “people person,” Burns, who previously worked in customer service, needed to do something to meet people in her new town, so she applied for a job with the township court.
‘You’re never alone in this township, and I think that’s one of the main pieces that makes it a wonderful place to live.’
But the person who hired her knew a position where Burns could interact with the public would benefit all involved. She worked in different departments—planning and zoning, administration—before settling in at the senior center in 2000. Burns has been the director for the last 11 years.
Burns’s mother, Gigi, would visit from time to time during the first 15 years that Burns lived in Robbinsville. Gigi made many trips to the senior center, where she enjoyed playing bingo, eating lunch and socializing.
But seniors are changing, Burns said. Her philosophy as director stems from the fact that baby boomers are “coming of age.”
“It’s feedback that you get from seniors that are 65 and 70 that were coming in the door that were like, ‘Okay, I don’t want to play bingo. I’m really not into the lunch program,’” she said.
The facility expanded 15 years ago, which paved the way for a number of new programs. Now, the center offers a number of popular exercise classes, like chair yoga, seated hula hoop workouts and a Super Senior Fitness class that uses weights, steppers, balls and other equipment. Seniors also play pickleball and bocce. She is proud of the senior center’s involvement with the local food pantry.
“Sixty-year-olds, 65-year-olds, a lot of them are still working,” she said. “They’re very active with exercise. Their mindsets are totally different from what my mom’s function was when she was coming here 10 years ago.”
Burns’s father died when she was 7 years old, and Gigi, then a registered nurse, worked full-time while raising three daughters. She worked hard but always made time for her children, Burns said, and that’s a quality she hopes she’s able to offer her daughter and grandchildren Ethan, Avery, Owen and Ella.
“My mom was always a very giving mother,” Burns said. “She sacrificed for us tremendously. She was my hero when I was growing up. It was always plugging ahead. Those values with work and school, and to just be true to yourself and give to other people within the community. We weren’t spoiled when we were little. Having a single parent, especially years ago, you had to work for every little thing. Christmastime, my mother would sacrifice in order for us to have what he needed. Looking back, she was the role model in my life.”
Gigi, 90, now lives in Virginia with Dawn and a full-time caretaker. Burns visits bimonthly, and the two enjoy playing Pass the Pig and watching Jeopardy.
Burns said she was humbled when she learned she was this year’s Grand Marshal.
“This was very surreal for them to ask me,” she said. “I do what I do, and the support that I have from the township and the mayor and council makes it so much easier. Just as a township, as you’ve seen in the past here, people that need something, everybody goes to bat for everybody. You’re never alone in this township, and I think that’s one of the main pieces that makes it a wonderful place to live.”
For more information on the Robbinsville Saint Patrick’s Day Parade and festivities, visit robbinsvilleirish.org.