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City’s holiday lights require lots of volunteer coordination

Chad Cripe and his son, Cooper, check lights on decorations destined for River Road during the holiday season. (KEIZERTIMES/Lyndon A. Zaitz)
Chad Cripe and his son, Cooper, check lights on decorations destined for River Road during the holiday season. (KEIZERTIMES/Lyndon A. Zaitz)

Of the Keizertimes

When Keizer wakes on the Sunday before Thanksgiving it finds that the decoration elves have completed their handiwork—more than 100 Christmas decorations line River Road and other streets.

Cities and towns across the country, no matter how big or small, have Christmas or holiday decorations. Keizer’s decorations date back many decades, hung each year by civic volunteers.

The current inventory of Christmas decorations date to the mid-1980s, after Keizer was incorporated. Then-Chamber of Commerce President Velma Tepper was instrumental in their purchase of the first ones.  All seven of them. River Road looked quite different in 1986 than it does now; there were many fewer utility poles on which to attach decorations.

In later years the city of Keizer purchased additional decorations, though they were cared for and stored by the Chamber. The Curry family, owners of Budget Rent-a-Space in south Keizer, donated the storage space.

Residents of Keizer who date back to the 1960s will remember the Santa decorations that were hung from poles on River Road. Those plastic units were hung by the Keizer Fire District for years before time took its toll. Eventually all of those were discarded.

Nowadays there are about 120 lighted Christmas decorations that are installed on utility poles along River Road, segments of Chemawa Road and Cherry Avenue. It takes a cadre of dedicated civic volunteers to assure the decorations are in good repair. They are led by Keizer’s Mr. Christmas himself, Dave Walery.

Walery, whose business, Walery’s Premium Pizza, was then located in Keizer (now in west Salem on Edgewater Drive), was called by local insurance agent and Chamber of Commerce board member Tom Bauer.

“He said ‘Come to my house tonight to drink beer and screw in light bulbs’ It sounded good to me,” said Walery. The original crew of Christmas decoration installers included Bauer, Randy Cook—who was key to the success of the project, Walery, and Jim Keller. It didn’t take the crew, a total of five people, to install the 21 decorations.

Back in the days before people thought of safety regulations, the crew hoisted themselves high off the ground, standing one a pallet on a forklift that was donated by Ben’s Rentals. In the name of safety, steel baskets were provided by Doug Gatchett of G&S Machines on Cherry Avenue, for the crew to stand in while installing the decorations more than 20 feet in the air.

In the 1980s, Portland General Electric added electrical boxes to the poles to allow for illumination; Salem Electric soon followed suit on their poles.

Christmas decorations, unfortunately, don’t last forever. They lose their luster, the garland starts to shed and the electrical wiring gets frayed and needs to be replaced. The only lasting element of the decorations is the steel frames.

It’s the need to repair and maintain the decorations that an army of volunteer kicks into high gear the weekend before Thanksgiving.

On a cold Saturday, Nov. 22 at Budget Rent-a-Space, Walery, Randy Cook and others hauled out the decorations and before loading onto trucks, checked and changed light bulbs as necessary, ready to be installed the following morning while most of Keizer was still asleep.

Joining the decorations, dating back almost 30 years, are some new LED-fitted ones the city of Keizer funded as the first of a five-year plan to replace all the old ones.

It now takes two crews to do their magic installing, one team starting in the south end, the other in the north end. This year the work was completed in record time—90 minutes. After the task was completed most members of the two crews repaired to the Elks Club for a celebratory breakfast.

Dave Walery and Randy Cook, the longest serving volunteers, were joined in the installation this year by: Tom Berkeland, Steve Clark, David Clarman, Brandon Cook, Chad Cripe, Cooper Cripe, Tasha Cripe, Heath Dedrick, Kim Freeman, Ron Freeman, Tony Newkirk, Larry Schmidgall, Marsha Stallings, Gordon Wentzel, Jennifer Wentzel and Rob Wood.