Downtown lights a little dimmer

Local 'elf,' Tracy Keagle, said she's stepping away from the courthouse lawn decorations in order to focus on helping those affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The city will still decorate downtown buildings and streetlights.

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November 18, 2020 - 10:01 AM

Holiday lights on the courthouse square in years past. Register file photo

Downtown Iola won’t shine quite as brightly this holiday season due to a decision by local “elf,” Tracy Keagle, to forgo decorating the courthouse lawn with an array of colorfully lit trees and a giant snowman.

Keagle has almost single-handedly orchestrated the elaborate display that has drawn passersby from afar these past several years. 

Keagle also instituted the tradition in Humboldt, which is on track to continue.

The difference is that local volunteers and Humboldt city officials assumed responsibility for their lighting project.

“Last year, I asked what I could do to help, and they just said, ‘Don’t worry. You’ve got other things to do. We got this,’” Keagle said Tuesday.

THE ONGOING pandemic led to her decision to “stay dark” this year, she said.

As director of the nonprofit Humanity House, Keagle said her attention and energy has been focused on helping area families weather the effects of COVID-19, whether it be from illness or lost jobs. 

“We spend all our time trying to keep people healthy, and doing what we can to keep people safe and warm and well,” Keagle said. “With this stupid virus going around, we just can’t do (the lights.)”

Keagle said she had considered doing a smaller display this year that would have featured the Iola Area of Chamber of Commerce’s Santa House that’s placed each holiday season on the southeast corner of the square. 

But the Chamber will be using the house for Santa’s weekly visits, which Keagle had assumed would be called off, similar to the Humboldt Chamber’s decision, because of the pandemic. 

“It’s not that we don’t want the square lit up,” Keagle said. “We just don’t want to do anything that encourages the spread of COVID.” 

LAST YEAR’S vandalism to the downtown display also took a toll on her enthusiasm, she admitted.

“I love doing the lights,” she said. “But last year I had to rebuild trees over and over and over. They knocked the big snowman down. I got so tired of having to rebuild it last year.”

“We do want to encourage people to do something nice for their neighbor, maybe decorate their property or put up a tree,” she continued. “Do what they can to make Iola a little prettier.”

At this point it’s almost certainly too late for someone else to pick up the mantle to decorate the courthouse lawn.

Previous endeavors began in early October, with reaching an agreement with the city and county first. The city must agree to provide the electricity for the lights, while the displays are set up on county property — the courthouse lawn.

And then there’s the arduous task of seeking sponsors for the “adopt a tree” effort, mapping out the display’s layout — “You can’t just throw lights out there anywhere,” Keagle said — and inspecting thousands of lights to ensure they’re working properly, another month-plus long endeavor.

“If somebody can get permission from the city and county and come up with money for the lights, maybe they can put up something quickly,” Keagle said.

Of note, Iola employees are preparing once again to light up Iola’s downtown streetlights and buildings with lights and wreaths. Those should be put up by early next week, Interim City Administrator Corey Schinstock said.

AS AN ASIDE, Keagle announced last year it would be her last as the organizer of Santa’s Toy Shop, in which hundreds of youngsters met Santa and received a free toy and book during their visit.

“It doesn’t have to be me,” she said. “There are all kinds of people around town who can do stuff,” to keep the spirit of the season alive.

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