January 8, 2012

Dalton turns out to honor J.R.

Charles Oliver
charlesoliver@daltoncitizen.com

— “Oh! There he is!” shouted one woman.

Sure enough, beneath the large sunglasses gleamed the unmistakable smile of Dalton’s own J.R. Martinez.

The crowd at the corner of Waugh Street and Thornton Avenue began to cheer. Then dozens crowded around to get photographs as Martinez shook hands and hugged them.

But after just a few minutes, the car he was sitting in turned left onto Thornton as Martinez led a parade being held in his honor.

As the car began to roll, the crowd started chanting “J.R.! J.R.!” But no sooner did that chant started than the second car in the parade, carrying his mother Maria Zavala began to move, bringing another chant of “Maria! Maria!”

Saturday marked the second time in less than a week that Martinez, a 2002 Dalton High School graduate and Iraq War veteran, has served as the grand marshal of a parade. He led the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., on Monday, a mark of just how large his celebrity has become in the past few weeks after winning the latest season of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

Saturday’s parade may not have been as large as the Rose Parade, but the crowds were certainly enthusiastic.

“I don’t know him, but I knew he was from Dalton,” said Dalton’s Ramon Carrera. “And I saw on the news that his family is from El Salvador. That’s where my father is from, so I thought it was important to support him. I’m really glad that Dalton has embraced him like this,”

The parade included marching bands from Dalton High School and North Murray High School. Many veterans also took part in the parade, including members of the American Legion and the Georgia Vietnam Veterans Alliance. Students from several schools in Dalton Public Schools rode in floats, as did some of Martinez’s teammates from the Dalton High School football team.

Several people watching the parade said they were also among the hundreds of people who lined Walnut Avenue in June 2003 to welcome him home after he was released from the hospital for the first time following his injuries in Iraq.

“I’ve been following him since then,” said Dalton’s April Sewell. “I watched him on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and was so glad to see him win. Not just because he is from Dalton, but because he seems like such a good person and has given so much for this country.”

Marvin Tallent said he was glad to see so many fellow Daltonians come out to honor Martinez.

“”We’ve got a good town and good people, and I think the people here today are representing that,” he said.