Winter Spirit could use a lift

Larry Kopczynski looks up at the musical tree, the centerpiece of the Winter Spirit light display, as his fellow volunteers begin to cover all the Locomotive Park foliage with decorative lights on Saturday morning in Lewiston.

Larry Kopczynski stood more than 40 feet off the ground in a cherry picker as he hung dark green lights on a tulip tree in Lewiston’s Locomotive Park.

He admitted Saturday that he was feeling “very nervous,” and it had nothing to do with his long-since-conquered fear of heights.

He was concerned about meeting the Nov. 17 deadline for himself and an ever-shrinking group of volunteers to have the park ready for the annual ceremony that debuts the Christmas display.

Almost everywhere in the park were things that still needed to be adorned with lights: tree trunks, an igloo frame, arches over sidewalks and even the mothballed train the park is named for.

“This is part of our community now. We’ve got to keep this going,” said Kopczynski, a founder of Winter Spirit, the nonprofit group behind the effort, now in its 24th year.

Kopczynski is one of the few people who knows where everything goes. But the full-time financial planner with Edward Jones can’t do it all himself.

Take the tulip tree. Kopczynski transforms it into “The Musical Tree,” one of Winter Spirit’s main attractions each year.

A total of 8,000 lights are arranged in layers of colors, starting with clear ones on the top, followed by gold, pink, red, light green, blue, dark green and purple on lower parts of the tree.

They are connected with the Christmas music that plays in the park, flashing based on the volume and frequencies in the songs.

Kopczynski was working on the dark green Saturday in a task more complicated than it appears. He puts chains along the branches to help secure the strands of bulbs and then tethers the branches to other trees with cable for more stability.

“It’s a bear cat,” he said.

A few years ago, inmates from the Idaho Correctional Institution in Orofino began filling in the gaps left by dwindling numbers of community volunteers.

Sometimes all of the trees with branches above the reach of ladders were handled by prisoners in cherry pickers.

But more recently, budget cuts have changed that, Kopczynski said.

This year, prisoners completed the trees in the northeast section of the park, which was still an important contribution, he said.

The inmates are just one of the groups that have helped Winter Spirit over the years.

University of Idaho students created the sound system for “The Musical Tree.” Lewis-Clark State College welding students built displays with rebar. Businesses have donated treats for volunteers.

Individuals have gotten involved in a variety of ways. Like Kopczynski, Jon Copeland is a regular. A jeweler at The Diamond Shop in downtown Lewiston, he was asked more than a decade ago to help put lights on trees near the store.

Soon that morphed into his present role, where he devotes at least six Saturdays in October and November to the project.

He keeps one eye on his cellphone and heads downtown if a customer buys a diamond and wants it set that day.

Copeland’s gotten so accustomed to being in a cherry picker that he can tolerate rain and snow, but not big wind gusts.

“It’s Winter Spirit, not summer spirit,” he said.

Others are new. For Mike Dotson, it’s a way fun way to fill time with his young children while he’s in between jobs.

The unemployed information technology specialist of Lewiston was wrapping a 12-foot-tall tree with clear, red and green lights on Saturday.

“I always wanted to compete with the Griswolds (in the movie “Christmas Vacation”), but I could never afford it,” he said.

His work on Winter Spirit reminds him some of a job he once had creating fireworks shows.

“I loved seeing the wonder in children’s eyes,” Dotson said.

Still even more help is needed, Kopczynski said.

Ideally, he would like to get a core group to understand and take responsibility for certain pieces of the display, similar to how he oversees the musical tulip tree.

In addition to volunteer help, Winter Spirit is supported with cash donations.

They’ve ranged from a low of $12,000 in one year to a high of about $60,000 in another year, with 2018 expected to be about $50,000, Kopczynski said.

Of that, about $30,000 will be spent just on lights, either replacing broken ones or finishing up a shift from incandescent lights to LED lights.

The new energy-saving lights have dramatically reduced the cost of power, which is covered by the city of Lewiston.

As hard as Kopczynski works on the logistics, he still remains enthused about the joy Winter Spirit spreads.

The group is making a concession stand look like a gingerbread house so that families can have one more place for pictures.

And he can’t bring himself to charge admission, because he believes for some families it may be the only Christmas that’s within their budgets.

“When you see people down here, you’re not sure if they have enough money to do decorations,” he said.

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

If you go:

Volunteers are needed to get the Winter Spirit light display ready at Lewiston’s Locomotive Park at 2102 Main St. between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. this Saturday and Nov. 17. Most volunteers spend four hours or more helping.

The lighting ceremony will be at 4 p.m. Nov. 17 at the park.

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