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FHSU tradition lights up the night

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

There was nary a sleigh nor reindeer in sight. Instead, Santa, wearing a cowboy hat, rode in on a trailer loaded with hay bales and pulled by a John Deere tractor.

And as many photos of the Christmas tree indoors and later with Santa were taken with cellphones as they were with cameras.

Nonetheless, the traditional feeling of Christmas was in the air as Fort Hays State University Provost Larry Gould flipped the switch that lit three trees in front of Sheridan Hall.

Gould has become a fixture at Fort Hays State University's tree-lighting ceremony, taking place annually on the Tuesday following the Thanksgiving break.

Now, Gould -- who came to FHSU in 1981 as an assistant professor and has worked his way up to provost -- has a couple of really good reasons to make it an annual event for him and his wife, Eva.

The Goulds' daughter, Stacey, is director of the hospitality management program at FHSU and the mother of two of their grandchildren, 6-year-old Jalen and 2-year-old Lauren.

Gould was all smiles as Jalen led him around the Dreiling Lobby at the tradition that was started in 1987 by President Edward H. Hammond in his first year.

Hammond now is in his 26th year and is the longest tenured president in the university's 110-year history. Like Gould, he hasn't missed a single year and took a break in his annual media tour to make it back from Salina in time for the ceremony.

Hammond, who was scheduled to take off early this morning for his next stop -- Clay Center -- said he thinks it's important to be in attendance. And he told the students and the other couple hundred people in the crowd just that.

"You've just been home for Thanksgiving, so you know how important family is," he said, stressing Fort Hays is a family of sorts as well.

More than 30 luminaries sat along the edge of the fountain in front of Sheridan Hall, attached with flags representing the home countries of international students attending Fort Hays.

Just as colorful on the inside were hundreds of colored pictures just below the huge Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center lettering.

In fact, this year's coloring contest for students in preschool through third grade was so popular, many of the entries had to be lined up along the floor just in front of the bench below the Beach/Schmidt sign.

"This has grown by leaps and bounds," said Chance Hobrock, a Fort Hays senior from St. Francis.

The event now is sponsored by FHSU fraternities, and Memorial Union Assistant Director Vince Bowhay credited Hobrock and his buddies in the agriculture fraternity, Alpha Gamma Rho, namely Dighton graduate student Corey Moomaw, who had a hand in organizing the event.

"This is just such a fun event, gets you in the Christmas spirit," Hobrock said, pointing out Santa also was a member of AgRho, thus explaining the cowboy hat atop Santa's head.

The event indeed has grown from the early days when a performance by the Fort Hays singers and the tree lighting was followed by hot chocolate and hot cider inside.

Wendy's Restaurant still sponsors the hot drinks, but there is so much more for people to see.

There is the children's artwork, which will be hung on the walls of the lower level of Gross Memorial Coliseum for the rest of the semester.

Hayrack rides were added about 10 years ago. And Tuesday, University Activities Board members were busy helping kids of all ages decorate and paint Santa hats of several colors.

"The key was getting (FHSU) students involved with helping plan it," Bowhay said. "And they've done a really good job."

A couple of friends, Hays junior Kelsey Bieker and Kincaid senior Sam Honn, took turns taking picturess of each other, and together, on their phone cameras in front of the massive tree inside Dreiling Lobby.

It was the first tree-lighting ceremony they have attended as students because they said they were working other years.

"I'd never been here, but this is really neat," Bieker said, agreeing it put her in the Christmas spirit.

"And," she added, "I'm ready for Christmas break."