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Athens News Matters: The ACC Community Christmas Tree

It’s a gloomy Wednesday at Athens-Clarke County City Hall, which makes the community Christmas Tree stand out even more as Mayor Kelly Girtz gazes up from a downtown street corner.

“Humanity needs some rest and reflection right now,” Girtz said. “And so, to be able to come out here and look at this gorgeous tree so nicely decorated, and see the sun peeking out through the clouds behind it, gives me some energy that I know I’m going to need for the coming year.”

It’s got ribbons, ornaments and lights along its roughly 20-foot-tall body. Beyond being a physical representation of Christmastime, the tree is also rooted in local history and tradition.

Stanley Beasley has overseen the community Christmas tree program for five years, but started as a crew leader in 1996. He’s a University of Georgia alum who got his start “pulling weeds,” he said. He worked at the university golf course. And after 26 years working with the county — his second ever full-time job — he’s moving on.

“I'm leaving at the end of the year, so this is going to be my last tree,” Beasley said. “So, the guys, it’s kind of bittersweet for all of us.”

As crew and leader, Beasley’s helped install 26 trees at City Hall. Every year, its landscapers like him that make it happen.

In some form or another, Athens’ annual Parade of Lights and Christmas Tree ceremony has been going on for decades. The tree is always donated by someone in the area, and that family or individual is honored at the parade.

“We usually want it to be around 25 to 30 feet tall and about 20 feet wide,” Beasley said. “Sometimes we don't have a backup so you know, it's kind of nerve racking, you got to get it right the first time.”

For Beasley’s final tree, we head over to Olivia Randolph’s house.

Randolph, 92 years old and retired from her job as an elementary school lunch lady, meets me outside.

“I’ve been here 65 years,” Randolph said.

She tells me that she originally wanted to donate a tree in her front yard but that one was too difficult to cut down, logistically. The crew instead found a tree further back on her land, growing undisturbed.

Randolph’s two daughters, son, son-in-law and nephew gather on Randolph’s property to watch the crew cut down the tree. It’s a bit shorter than years past, says the crew. Meanwhile, Randolph chats with me about her garden — she grows peppers and onions — and her upcoming birthday.

“I’ve got a friend, she turned 92 in August. My birthday is in December,” Randolph said. “I told her, I said, I’m just thankful we can still remember our names.”

After a faulty boon gives the crew some trouble, the tree is tied down, and starts making its way to city hall, where it’s placed in a manhole on the corner of College and Washington Avenues.

Not without significant effort, the crew secures the trunk with wedged wooden stakes and wires. Beasley warns of wind gusts. The star weighs almost 60 pounds, he says, so they better get it right.

Completing the tree takes a couple of days and a lot of work. But back at City Hall, just like hundreds who crowded around the tree last Thursday, Mayor Girtz says it’s worth the effort.

“Never more do I look forward to anything in this town than when the downtown is decorated during the holidays,” Girtz said. “Of course, this tree is a centerpiece of that.”

Chris Shupe began work at WUGA as a part time weekend announcer in 2010. At the time Shupe was focused on maintaining a thriving career in Real Estate, as well as balancing his time as a local entertainer. Shupe may be best known as The Athens King, a tribute to Elvis Presley, which often included an 8 piece show band! In 2012, Shupe joined WUGA full time as the station’s Morning Edition Host and Assistant Operations Director, and after 2 years of serving in that role Shupe was hired as Program Director for the station. As PD, Shupe spearheaded a return to more involvement in national conferences and continuing education opportunities through industry professional organizations like the Public Radio Program Director's Association, Public Media Development and Marketing Association, Morning Edition Grad School, the NAB, and the Public Media Journalists Association. This involvement led Shupe to undertake a comprehensive market study in 2015, the first such examination of local audience trends in more than 15 years.