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Saga of the Santa
By Jim Fester
Fort Wayne Reader
The calendar says the first day of winter is December 21. Stores start decking the aisles not long after the pumpkins of Halloween have been put away — so early, in fact, that Santa has to fight for space with cardboard turkeys and pilgrims. But for many people in Fort Wayne, the only sure sign that winter is upon us and the holiday season has begun is the lighting of the gigantic Santa and his reindeer on the side of the National City Bank building.
The giant Santa sign has taken on almost mythic status. Generations of families have visited the sign since its debut on the side of Wolf & Dessauer in 1940, and nearly 70 years later, you can count on a crowd turning out for the traditional lighting ceremony (usually the Friday after Thanksgiving), even when we’re being doused by freezing rain or pummeled by ice-cold temperatures.
For all the love we give the Santa sign, you’d think we’ve always cherished it and its iconic status as a Fort Wayne tradition. But the sad fact is, we haven’t always given the Santa sign much respect. There have been plenty of years without a Santa Claus looming over Fort Wayne from the side of some big building, and not too long ago, it seemed possible that in 2008, downtown Fort Wayne was going to be a little less bright when Christmas rolled around. The cost of operating and maintaining the giant Santa — which measures over 150 feet long, weighs 5.5 tons, and boasts a blinding 24, 717 lights — was becoming prohibitive for National City.
Fortunately, the year without a Santa was averted. National City put out a call for helpers, and in the true spirit of the season, the helpers came in droves. A conglomeration of organizations and businesses stepped forward to lend their time, resources, and energy to preserve a Fort Wayne tradition. The English, Bonter, Mitchell Foundation, a charitable trust that provides financial support for local non-profit organizations, assumed responsibility for Santa and his reindeer, and serves as a coordinator for the volunteer efforts of other organizations, including National City Bank, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 305, Shambaugh and Son, and Do it Best Corp.
To top it off, Santa and his reindeer went “green” in 2008, with new environmentally friendly L.E.D. bulbs. The task of converting all those bulbs fell to IBEW local 305 and apprentices of the Fort Wayne Electrical Joint Apprentice Training Committee, who donated their labor to the project. Santa glows just as brightly with the new 1-watt LED bulbs, but replacing the old 11-watt bulbs means Santa will use 90% less power. He’ll also last longer — the old bulbs lasted just 2,000 hours, but the LED bulbs are expected to last approximately 80,000 hours. Under optimum conditions, the new bulbs could remain in place for 177 holiday seasons.
General upkeep and ongoing maintenance of Santa falls to Shambaugh and Son, while Do It Best will provide a home for Santa and his reindeer during the 11 months they aren’t on the National City Bank wall.
“We believe that Santa truly belongs to the Fort Wayne community,” said Michael Eikenberry, President of National City’s Fort Wayne offices. “Generations of children have marveled at the Santa since its debut at the Wolf & Dessauer department store in 1940. We all want it to remain part of Fort Wayne’s holiday tradition for generations to come.”
All well and good, and the efforts of National City and their partners in this project are of course greatly appreciated by the community. Many cities across the country are curtailing their holiday festivities this season due to the economy, so we should count ourselves fortunate.
But like we said above, we haven’t always treated the great glowing Santa with respect. When it made its debut on the side of Wolf & Dessauer back in 1940 (with just six reindeer), it was supposedly the second largest display of its kind in the country. The culmination of a short but intense labor of love, the original idea came from G. Irving Latz, secretary and treasurer of Wolf & Dessauer store, and Frank Dunigan, President of the Brinkman Corporation. Work began on October 7, 1940, and was installed and lit up just 44 days later on Thanksgiving Eve in a ceremony attended by practically every public official in the area. Aside from a three-year hiatus during World War II, the Santa — now with eight reindeer — lit up the holiday seasons through 1958.
In 1959, Wolf & Dessauer moved locations. Santa was put in storage, and didn’t see the outdoors for decades. He wasn’t completely forgotten; every now and then, someone would bring up the big Santa, and say “wouldn’t it be great if…” But after a while, the Santa had deteriorated to such an extent that the task of fixing it up would be too monumental and expensive.
But in 1979, Jim Green, a phone installer with GTE, discovered the display in an old warehouse. Thousands of bulbs were now little more than dust, the steel frame was corroded, the wiring shot, but Green saw potential. With the help of Pete Cruze, Green got other people interested in restoring Santa, including Don Petrucelli, then president of the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce.
The restoration project moved very slowly at first. Once again, it was the efforts of IBEW Local 305 that helped move the whole enterprise forward, in particular IBEW Local 305’s president Wayne Byrd. Inspired by memories of his family’s annual trips from Kalamazoo to Fort Wayne, Byrd helped pull together a wide range of businesses and organizations — trade unions, Ironworkers Local 147, Northeastern Indiana Electrical Contractors Association, the Chamber of Commerce and scores of interested citizens — to donate their time and talents to putting Santa back together again.
On Thanksgiving Eve 1979, the fruits of all that time and energy were unveiled — a single reindeer was lit on that night, with a second reindeer joining that one before Christmas that year. A small start, perhaps, but those two reindeer were enough to keep the enthusiasm for the restoration project going throughout 1980. In a way, the entire project was reminiscent of the original unveiling on the side of Wolf & Dessauer 40 years earlier, with a small army of people pulling together in a relatively short amount of time to get the entire display ready.
It worked. On Thanksgiving Eve, November 27, 1980, Santa and his eight not-so-tiny reindeer made their debut at their new home on the side of what was then the Fort Wayne National Bank building.
And there it will remain, at least for the foreseeable future, thanks to the goodwill of another group of collaborators. The churlish and cynical among us may snicker at the fact that Fort Wayne is still impressed by the kind of signage that wowed the crowds back in the 40s, but (a) those people are too cool for school anyway; and (b) that’s sort of the point. It’s a tradition, one of the few in Fort Wayne that we can still go see rather than spend time bemoaning the demise of. As community signposts go, the big glowing Santa is a pretty darn good one.