As the centerpiece celebration leading up to the Indianapolis 500, luminaries such as Bob Hope, Walter Cronkite and Larry Bird have served as grand marshals for the 500 Festival Parade.
Now, one of Johnson County’s own will share the same honor.
Emma Stumpf has been named the grand marshal of this year’s 500 Festival Parade. The 14-year-old Greenwood girl will be the youngest grand marshal ever to lead the historic parade.
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After being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2009, Emma has served as an inspiration through her courage, her strength and her willingness to help others, said Bob Bryant, president and CEO of the 500 Festival.
“This is a great story for us and for Indiana, but one that also has significance as you draw attention to children with cancer and what it means to survive, and what it means to face that on a daily basis,” he said.
“To see someone who’s done so well at that and actually used that as a way to think of others is an inspiration.”
Emma is currently in Memphis, Tennessee, recovering from surgery Monday that removed 95 percent of the tumor, according to a post her mother Lori Stumpf made on the Prayers for Emma Facebook page.
When she returns to Indiana next week, she will be the guest of honor at one of the most popular events of the 500 Festival. As grand marshal, she will be responsible for greeting the flood of celebrities and others who will be taking part in the parade, including Gov. Mike Pence and Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.
Once the parade starts, her float will be the pinnacle of the event, the highest position of anyone being honored, Bryant said.
“She’s the center point of the day and the parade route,” he said.
Emma was diagnosed with what doctors said they believed was an inoperable brain tumor when she was 7 years old. She had to go through 70 weeks of chemotherapy, as well as another six weeks of proton radiation to stabilize the tumor.
Though the process stopped the tumor’s growth, Emma and her family thought that they’d always have to live with it.
Despite spending half of her life as a cancer patient, she has shown an overwhelmingly positive spirit, Bryant said.
One of her primary goals was to develop a way to make the long hospital stays pediatric patients have to deal with slightly more bearable. She founded Emma’s Art Cart to provide patients at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health customized art kits so they could draw, paint and color while receiving treatment.
So far, more than 1,500 kits have been distributed.
“Emma is one of the most positive, kind and inspirational people I know. She always has a smile on her face and is so positive,” said Kate Burnett, spokeswoman for the Riley Children’s Foundation. “She wants other kids to feel like they have some hope and help when they are in the hospital.”
In March, the tumor forced Emma back into the hospital, as it was affecting her vision, motor skills and balance.
While she was recently hospitalized at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, Emma had told staff members that her only wish was to meet a princess.
Some of this year’s 500 Festival Princesses learned about the request and wanted to make her an honorary princess for this year’s festival. 500 Festival leadership agreed, and the more they learned about Emma’s story, the more they wanted to honor her, Bryant said.
“We heard about who she was and what she was going through, and as we learned how much it meant to her to be a 500 Festival Princess, we thought it was someone who is really inspiring and someone who’s worthy of drawing attention to,” he said.
The 500 Festival Parade has had a grand marshal nearly every year since it was founded in 1957. Honorees have ranged from military generals to Hollywood celebrities, such as Jimmy Stewart and Gene Autry, to sports stars, such as Peyton Manning and Reggie Miller.
“It runs the gamut of what you might be drawing attention to and what you might be celebrating,” Bryant said. “It might be something raising awareness of Indianapolis on a national scale, or sometimes it might be someone who’s a really good Hoosier story that’s an inspiration. That’s what Emma is.”