Inside Iowa State
Nov. 15, 1996
Lighting up tradition
by Anne Dolan
The 50th holiday tree lighting next month will be Gene Richardson's 36th. The manager of electrical distribution has been involved in testing and stringing the lights since he arrived on campus Dec. 5, 1960.
And could he tell you stories.
Through most of the 1960s, camera flash bulbs had the same socket size as the colored light bulbs strung on the tree. Every year, students replaced a dozen or more of the colored bulbs with flash bulbs, so when the lights were lit, there was brilliant -- if short-lived -- white light. (Part of the holiday tradition that continues today is a morning-of-the- ceremony lights testing, when such pranks are played out.)
During the early 1960s, students also managed to install a Pabst Blue Ribbon neon bar sign near the top of the tree.
For a few years in the mid 1960s, the top of the tree was graced with a three-foot Plexiglas lighted star Richardson had made. But after about five years, someone climbed the tree one night and took it.
Richardson said many other kinds of "unsanctioned" lights made it on the tree over the years, from bar lights to spotlights. Several times, he said, the lowest 50 or 60 bulbs on the tree simply disappeared. Traditionally, pranksters have confined themselves to the last 30 hours before the tree lighting.
"Once it's lit, we never have any problems," he said.
Iowa State's first official tree lighting ceremony was held in 1946 and, with the exception of 1973 when the energy crisis hit hard, has continued every year since. Student associations got involved in 1980 in stringing and unstringing the tree, but that practice discontinued about four years ago. Today, it's a crew from Campus Services that strings the lights and tests them the morning of the ceremony.
When Richardson first joined the holiday tree tradition, he would climb the tree and from the top, toss out a rope that a ground crew would tie to a string of lights. Richardson would hoist the string, tying one end into a loop secured in the tree trunk. When numerous light strings had been similarly anchored, the ground crew essentially did a "Maypole" walk to set the lights in a spiral pattern.
By the early 1970s, Iowa State purchased its first boom truck and workers began stringing the tree lights from the truck's extended arm.
The 1996 Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony begins at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4, on the steps of Beardshear. The 100-plus voices of Iowa State's Oratorio Chorus will open the ceremony. President Martin Jischke will speak and then turn on the tree lights.
ISU carillonneur Tin-Shi Tam will give a concert following the lighting. Guests also may take horse-pulled wagon rides around central campus, visit the festively decorated Farm House Museum and drop in on University Book Store's holiday open house. Luminaries will line the sidewalk between Beardshear and the Farm House.
Cookies and hot chocolate will be served preceding the ceremony. The university and Ames communities are invited.
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