McCrabb: AK Steel volunteers give ‘Grandpa Gang’ an assist

Volunteers from the “Grandpa Gang” string thousands of lights that welcome visitors to Light Up Middletown at Smith Park in Middletown.

Combined ShapeCaption
Volunteers from the “Grandpa Gang” string thousands of lights that welcome visitors to Light Up Middletown at Smith Park in Middletown.


HOW TO GO

WHAT: Light Up Middletown, holiday drive-through lights display

WHEN: 6 to 10 p.m. Nov. 24 though Dec. 31

WHERE: Smith Park, downtown Middletown

COST: Admission by donation

FOCUS ON COMMUNITY COVERAGE

The Journal-News is committed to coverage of the local community — from schools and businesses to residents and nonprofit groups. Reporter Rick McCrabb brings you the stories of the people, places or events that make our community unique.

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Barney Strassburger, site manager at Light Up Middletown, a holiday drive-through display, was 60 years old when he formed the “Grandpa Gang,” a group of retired volunteers.

“Young,” he said.

He’s 78 now.

Strassburger’s body has aged. All of us have the past 18 years. His knees and back ache.

What he and the other volunteers could easily accomplish when they started, takes a little longer today. Plus the “Grandpa Gang” — once 20-men strong — is down to less than a dozen.

So when the guys started the arduous task of assembling and erecting the holiday lights displays at Smith Park, in preparation for this year’s Light Up Middletown, Strassburger quickly realized this year was going to be even more challenging despite the unseasonably warm weather.

“We were really concerned,” he said.

Then Strassburger contacted Josh Laubach, a former member of Middletown City Council and maintenance foreman at AK Steel. Laubach told Strassburger about a program that encourages AK Steel employees to volunteer in the Middletown community. This was a common practice back in the glory days of the mill the old-timers have told me.

Apparently, those days are back.

Laubach, a Middletown resident and frequent Light Up Middletown attendee, agreed to send over some volunteers. So Strassburger had enough work for about 25 workers last week.

Then 50 showed up.

They completed in just a few hours what Strassburger had hoped they’d accomplish all day. So he gave them more projects. Then more.

“They were like a bunch of bees running around,” Strassburger said. “They were eager beavers. They kept saying, ‘What you got next?’”

In six or seven hours, the AK volunteers erected the number of displays that would have taken the “Grandpa Gang” 10 days to accomplish, Strassburger said.

“It was really great,” he said. “It was a godsend.”

Laubach said it was refreshing to see the volunteers working next to the “Grandpa Gang,” some of them Armco/AK retirees.

“A good day,” he said. “It was great to help and watch everyone work well together.”

The volunteers have agreed to return to Smith Park three more Fridays before the display opens on Thanksgiving Day, but Strassburger may ask them to save one of those dates until the display needs dissembled and stored.

During the 36 days of operation in the 2015 season, there were 74,239 guests, slightly above 2014 numbers of 74,039 people, said Ann Mort, secretary for Light Up Middletown.

After 17 years of operation, Light Up Middletown has been visited by 956,173 people in 280,922 vehicles, including 993 buses, she said. The one millionth visitor is expected this year, she said.

Who knows — maybe that visitor will be an AK Steel employee.

That would be fitting.

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