Newport man bashes town's 'pathetic' Christmas tree, rekindles community spirit

click to enlarge Newport man bashes town's 'pathetic' Christmas tree, rekindles community spirit (2)
Photo courtesy of Amy Morningstar
Newport's Christmas tree decorations this year have not exactly filled all the little boys and girls with cheer.

When Fritz Turner saw this year's Christmas tree in Newport, it was a far cry from the glorious, decorated trees he remembers fondly from throughout his childhood growing up in the area.

Instead, right at the end of Main Street, where everyone funnels through town, there was a tree with lights on it, alright, but one that brought to mind A Charlie Brown Christmas more than the splendid light displays that communities often put together. Several rope lights were just hanging limply from the top of the tree in straight lines toward the ground.

"I came back for my first Christmas and I was like, 'Oh this is not gonna do, I’ll do anything to change this tree,'" Turner says. "This is embarrassing."

After he posted his thoughts about the "pathetic" tree on Facebook and received a huge response from others in the community, he decided to turn that into something productive. He set up a GoFundMe to provide decorations for the tree.

His tongue-in-cheek pitch for the $5,000 fundraiser reads, in part, "When they put these lights up, the value of our homes dropped. Stores lost business. People driving by were laughing. This is a disgrace to the good name of not only Newport but Saint Nic himself and I won't stand for it. We can't do Santa like this. I'm taking a stand. I will personally decorate this tree."

"At first the thought was just to poke a little fun at it and let them know how dissatisfied we were," Turner says. "Now I'm totally serious about it."

Not only have donations poured in – more than $1,400 so far – but community members have reached out to volunteer to help decorate or provide ideas on how to improve the current display. Turner says he even got a call from the area Chamber of Commerce suggesting he volunteer to lead a lighting ceremony.

The 23-year-old, who grew up in the Newport/Diamond Lake area, returned to the region this September after spending a few years in Texas. His mother had passed away suddenly from pancreatic cancer – it was only about 40 days from her diagnosis to her death, he says – so he returned to help care for his younger sisters.

Decorating for the holidays is a family tradition.

"We have a storage shed dedicated to decorations for just Christmas and Halloween. ... Pretty much summer is the only time there’s not any decorations up," Turner says. "That’s what my mom did. I inherited the decorations and keep doing it. It's the first year doing it without her."

He says the community response to his post about the tree has been inspirational, and he hopes it will drive even more positive efforts to improve the community in the future.

"I’m really inspired ... I’m gonna be the mayor in like 10 years hopefully, but I’m probably forever gonna be known as 'that Christmas tree guy' now," Turner says with a laugh. "Together, we’re really powerful and can make a change in our community. Even if it's just something like a Christmas tree, which may not seem important, it can inspire other work to be done."
Jason Totland, the volunteer president of the Greater Newport Area Chamber of Commerce, certainly hopes that the tree will be the push people need to get involved.

The tree itself was donated to the community back in 1989, Totland says, and a handful of local nonprofits are involved in its care. The museum owns it while the Centennial Plaza nonprofit cares for it throughout the year and provides decorations. The Public Utility District helps hang the decorations each year and the Chamber pays for the electricity for the lights.

"In the last 32 years it’s grown quite a bit, and it’s to the point where we can't hardly get to the top of it with a 65-foot bucket truck," Totland says.

"Apparently we need to do things, like, offensively bad, and people will come."

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When Totland heard the Chamber was going to dissolve in late 2019 due to aging volunteers stepping down with no one to replace them, he and other like-minded community members stepped in to keep the organization alive. But just as they got passionate about ramping things back up, planning a dozen events for their first year, the pandemic struck and canceled every single one.

"It took the wind out of our sails," Totland says. "We've had one event since 2020."

So, when this year's Christmas tree received such an outpouring of, let's call it passionate feedback, Totland put out a call for help. He's been pleasantly surprised to see nearly 20 people heed his call for volunteers to plan a tree lighting ceremony in just the last day.

"Apparently we need to do things, like, offensively bad, and people will come," Totland says.

He plans to push Turner to chair the tree lighting ceremony committee, and if possible they hope to pull together a lighting ceremony by next Saturday, Dec. 11.

While the commercial lights that the GoFundMe will help purchase wouldn't be ready in time for this Christmas, they can be there for next year's tree. But there are still plans to redecorate the tree this year with the lights that are already on hand and ornaments made by local elementary school kids, Totland says.

Plus, the ceremony may have some of the fun of previous years.

"We have Santa Claus and hot chocolate and music," Totland says, "and the city gave us permission to do carriage rides if we can find somebody..."

Anyone who wants to help with the lighting ceremony (any carriage owners out there?) or attend can keep an eye on the Chamber's Facebook page for more details.

And going forward, Totland and Turner alike hope that this is a call to action for people to get involved.

"All of our nonprofits are running on one leg right now," Totland says. "I’m hoping this will be a battle call and people will fill the gaps."

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...