By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Anthony Smith isn’t just any 5-year-old boy — he’s an inspiration to children like himself coping with physical challenges.
That’s why the determined, energetic youngster has been named the grand marshal of this year’s Salem Holiday Parade.
When organizers began considering candidates for the event Dec. 1, Anthony became an obvious choice, according to Brett Grande, parade committee chairman. Nearly a dozen committee members then met with the child and his family.
“The parade is all about kids, so to have someone his age will be pretty special,” Grande said.
Ever since the story of the young boy’s battle with a rare genetic disease unfolded last year, Anthony and his family have been the center of attention.
And Anthony — born with mosaic trisomy 22, which left him with a hearing impairment and a hole in his heart, among other health complications — became a celebrity of sorts.
It all began when Anthony, who loves superheroes, told his mother he no longer wanted to wear his blue hearing aid — nicknamed “Blue Ear.”
It was the first time that Anthony, then 4, acknowledged he was a little different than other children, according to his mother, Christina D’Allesandro. Anthony is the grandson of longtime state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester.
Christina D’Allesandro tried to make Anthony feel better by telling him superheroes wear hearing aids just like anybody else, but she didn’t know if that was true. So, she contacted Marvel Comics to see if it ever created any superheroes with hearing impairments.
Marvel Comics editor Bill Rosemann sent the family a 1980s comic book cover of the character Hawkeye of the Avengers, who wore a hearing aid after injuring his ear.
He also sent a special cover drawing of Anthony as a superhero named The Blue Ear, who — thanks to his “special listening device” — helps people when he hears they are in trouble.
They were also sent a third drawing of Hawkeye and The Blue Ear together — changing Anthony’s entire perspective of his disability and no longer making him feel self-conscious, his mother said. Anthony also has a special Blue Ear costume he never wants to take off.
The story of Anthony and The Blue Ear went viral. He’s made several national television appearances since, including one on “CBS This Morning.”
Last winter, Anthony and his family, which also includes dad Kevin Smith and 7-year-old brother Dominic, were invited to New York City by Marvel Comics for the unveiling of a new Iron Man poster, geared toward children who are hearing impaired.
Christina D’Allesandro said the family is constantly contacted by parents of hearing-impaired children, hearing-impaired adults, teachers of the deaf and comic book fans who became fascinated with Anthony’s story.
“Anthony is an inspiration,” Grande said. “Now, he is very confident about his differences.”
But Anthony, who has endured several operations in his short life, takes it all in stride, his mother said. Despite his celebrity status, Anthony continues to be the happy-go-lucky boy he’s always been, she said.
“He is just a great kid and has a great personality,” his proud grandfather said. “The kid is as tough as nails.”
And now, Anthony is enthusiastic about leading Salem’s parade from the seat of a fancy convertible. He’s even been practicing how to wave to the thousands of parade-goers who will be cheering on perhaps the youngest grand marshal ever in Salem Holiday Parade history.
“I am excited,” he said. “I’m looking forward to riding on the car.”
His family is looking forward to the event, too. Usually, Anthony just watches the parade from the sidewalk. This year, it will be different.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun — he just loves going,” Christina D’Allesandro said. “You don’t often get to be a grand marshal of a parade.”