Byron “Barney” Strassburger is best know as the leader of the 18-member Grandpa Gang, a crew who spends countless hours putting up all the lights and displays at Smith Park for Light Up Middletown.
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Strassburger serves as the site manager for the annual event, which is in its 19th season. He was also a founding member of Middletown High School Boosters Fourth of July event, All American Weekend.
The Grandpa Gang is a group of mostly retired community members, who work tirelessly to maintain, take down and store the numerous displays that are a part of Light Up Middletown. As volunteers, they begin early in October, placing displays around Smith Park. They take turns turning on the lights before 6 p.m., and turning them off at 10 each night. Also, if a display is not working properly, they put extra care in seeing that it is repaired. On New Year’s Day, the Grandpa Gang members begin taking down the displays and storing them for the next season.
We caught up with Barney to find what it’s like to head up the Grandpa Gang. He shared about their work, and the passion behind what keeps them giving back to Middletown each season.
This year's Light Up Middletown will run through Sunday, Dec. 31, from 6 to 10 nightly. (More details at www.lightupmiddletown.org.)
Q: Your name always comes when I talk to others in the community about Light Up Middletown and the Grandpa Gang. How long have you been involved with the Grandpa Gang?
A: This is my nineteenth year to do this. Since we started, I have been grounds chairman from the very beginning. We have a bunch of older people, and we nicknamed ourselves Grandpa Gang, because everybody was a grandpa or a retiree. When I started out, I had about six displays. And, I only had seven or eight guys at that time.
Q: Tell us about your family?
A: Sue is my wife, and we have two daughters, Carol and Lu Anne.
Q: When do you start setting up for Light Up Middletown?
A: We start on October 1st, and it's a five-day a week job until Thanksgiving Day. It's about 36 days of putting up the displays. We start about 9 a.m. and quit about 2:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. each day. I never really added up the hours, but we average about a dozen people a day from the Grandpa Gang that help during those hours.
Additionally, there were three Fridays this year that AK Steel had volunteers that came out. They also helped us to erect the displays. There were 25 volunteers each time. We’ve really had a lot of volunteer help from AK Steel this year and last year.
Q: Are you currently retired? Where did you work?
A: I retired in 1993 from Armco (now AK Steel), in the Corporate Research Center.
Q: Why did you want to volunteer for Light Up Middletown?
A: We were involved in All American Weekend. I was the grounds chairman for many years for that event. And, when Flo (Randall) came up with the idea for Light Up Middletown, I didn't have enough sense to say no (laughs.) So, I've been doing this for 19 years. It's got to be routine. I sit down each year with all my layouts from the previous year's and see if I can move things around, or come up with something new.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not volunteering for Light Up Middletown?
A: We spend the whole summer on our houseboat on Dale Hollow Lake. In the past, we had snow mobiles for about 25 years. I like to do anything outdoors.
Q: Are there any new displays this year?
A: Yes, we added 10 candy canes down each side of the driveway, we doubled the size of the tunnel. It was 50-ft., now it's 100-ft. We put LED lights in it this year. And, one of our Grandpa Gang members, Mark Dunaway, built a display to music, so we built a 30-ft. Christmas tree to go with that display this year.
Q: Can you talk about a couple of the popular displays?
A: The Santa's Workshop, Whales giving Santa's Reindeer a ride, and a lot of visitors like to see the Sea Serpent that's floating out in the lake. We have a lot of big displays, with a lot of variety, so it appeals to everybody.
Q: What are you the proudest of as far as being able to bring this to the community every year?
A: It's a pleasure to see something positive in Middletown. I think all the guys feel the same way. For so many years, everything was doom and gloom, and it seems like the publicity that we get in news is usually something bad.
We get tour buses from St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis and Nashville. I spend a lot of time on it. In the summer, I take my layouts to the lake, and I sit on my houseboat and work out what I’m going to change from year to year. I buy the items for the repairs and the new displays.
Q: What are some of the comments you hear from visitors?
A: They are surprised that a town like Middletown has something like this. I think we rival Holiday in Lights at Sharon Woods, or Fort Saint Clair in Eaton. But, we have more big displays, and there's something for everyone. And for children, we have Santa and Mrs. Claus on Friday and Saturday nights, from 7-9 p.m. through Saturday, Dec. 23.
Q: You touched on the fact that Light Up Middletown brings something positive to Middletown. When the lights go on for the first time each year, what do you love the most about it?
A: The biggest thing that goes through my mind is it's one of the few things that's positive in Middletown. When you walk in the gates, you see "Light Up Middletown," and you see the tunnel, to me, that's when it all starts.
Q: As far as Light Up Middletown, or setting it up, is there anything you think people would be surprised about?
A: I think the community would be shocked about how many hours and how many people it takes to put this up, to take it back down and put it away.
Q: If you could say a word to the volunteers that are a part of the Grandpa Gang, what would you tell them?
A: Thanks a lot for their dedication, and the help that all of them give. Some of them are there every day. They don't miss a day. We couldn't do it without them. The City appreciates it, and I sure appreciate having the help.
Q: Why would you encourage the community to visit Light Up Middletown?
A: It's an entertaining thing to do. … You wouldn't believe the thrill people get when they go through. … You can go around more than once, and you really need to. You need to go around and look out the right window once, then look out the other window to see everything.
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