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A bright holiday gift: the unexpected

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002

I'm hoping that someday when the tale of how Dade City got its holiday decorations this year is told, it will include an account of how a Jew and a commie newspaper saved Christmas.

Jewish businessman Otto Weitzenkorn was among the very first to come forth with a contribution for the decorations which, for that matter, are in fact, of the non-religious holiday variety.

And because of its liberal editorial policy all of us who work at the Times have, at one time or another, heard it referred to as a "commie rag," or, more politely, "Pravda West." Bumper stickers throughout the area once could be seen calling us "Florida's Most Widely Red Newspaper."

Years ago our slightly more educated critics used to call us the Leningrad Times, demonstrating that they knew that the original name of that city was St. Petersburg. Then, after Russians discovered fast food, overpriced sneakers and the joys of organized crime and went capitalist, the name of the city was changed back to St. Petersburg, taking some of the fun out of that remark.

But I, to no great surprise for regular readers, digress.

This is what happened this year:

Economic tough times are for everyone, including cities, and when the final pinch comes at the end of the year, the cost of holiday decorations looks like a sacrificial lamb already halfway to the slaughter. When former City Manager Ben Bolan, in the same dilemma, made the same announcement in the 1970s, that the city couldn't afford holiday decorations, he immediately was christened "The Grinch," until he and other city leaders found a way to come up with the money.

Despite my long-stated apathy for the holidays, I have to admit that Dade City, where I live, is a pretty Christmasy kind of town. We have the Christmas stroll, where stores stay open for late night shopping, and many of them provide refreshments.

We have Church Street Christmas, where homeowners and churches on a street inhabited by several churches and attractive homes go to massive efforts to decorate and entertain every year.

I have the added advantage of living only a half block from Church Avenue, which, for geographical purists, is the road where Church Street Christmas takes place, so I can walk to see the beauty without feeling pressured to decorate myself. Actually, my neighbors are satisfied if I just keep my lawn mowed.

The city's holiday events draw thousands of tourists, but remain hometown celebrations. Church Street Christmas was going on when the city's economy was still based on oranges and cattle, and only became more popular when tourism and antique shops became the new stock in trade.

As city commissioners were discussing options, including some of them donating their own salaries or amounts equal to their salaries and City Manager Doug Drymon offering to give back a $2,000 raise, Mayor Scott Black announced that the Times had offered $2,000, and then Weitzenkorn, a well-known businessman and regular attendee of City Commission meetings for decades, stepped forward.

"On the Christmas lights," said Weitzenkorn, "even though we don't participate in Christmas, my religion, they're very important to us."

"When I drive into Dade City from the hill, driving north, and I see those lights, they're meaningful. They mean a lot. If the city can't afford them, then some of us will step in to do it."

The original proposed cost of the decorations had been around $7,000, but Laura Beagles, assistant to the city manager, said she would try to hold the cost down to $5,000 and city commissioners agreed to "pass the hat" to make up the difference.

Despite the spirit of the moment, Drymon had to play scrooge for a few minutes more, warning commissioners that things probably won't be any better next year because of loss of fire tax district revenues.

But with a whole year to plan and an increasingly energized business community to participate, and the ever-present element of chance keeping things interesting, my bet would be that the decorations will survive again.

Sometimes help comes from what might, at first glance, seem to be unexpected places.

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