50-year-long holiday tradition at the Indiana Memorial Union gets energy-efficient update

The Indiana University Bloomington campus has its own signs of the changing seasons. When the Showalter Fountain is turned on for the first time in months, it means it's spring. An eerily empty campus tells visitors and locals that it's summer. Football and foliage make it feel like fall. And when the giant candles on the facade of the Indiana Memorial Union are aglow, IU everyone knows it's the winter holiday season.

For the past 50 years, the lights arranged in the shape of two massive candles, one on the east tower and one on the west, have lit up campus from the day after Thanksgiving through the new year.

In the 1980s, a retired Herman B Wells dressed up as Santa Claus and participated in a lighting ceremony. Wells would hit a big, symbolic red button, a staff member would page another staff member on the roof, and the lights would flicker on. In the early 1990s, a rusting mount on the building was traded out for a stainless steel one, and the lights were upgraded with a timer to turn the lights on automatically at 3 p.m. and off at 8 a.m. the next morning. But aside from these variations, this tradition has remained largely unchanged -- until this year.

For the first time, both candles will be made up completely of LED light bulbs, making the tradition more energy efficient and more durable. The facilities team at the IMU had been hoping to make this change for several years, but the scarcity of red LED bulbs and the cost made it hard to pull off. Now, with the increase in availability of LED bulbs, the team was able to bring this tradition into the 21st century.

Herman B Wells dressed as SantaView print quality image
Herman B Wells dresses as Santa Claus to celebrate the holiday season in 1965. Photo courtesy of IU Archives
Candle at the IMUView print quality image
The east tower candle circa 1972. Photo courtesy of IU Archives

"We are constantly moving toward more energy-efficient lighting and equipment here at the IMU," said Gary Chrzastowski, assistant director of facility operations at the IMU. "When it became economically viable for us to change out the bulbs, it was a no-brainer."

Energy efficiency isn't the only perk of this change, according to Jack Kannady, maintenance manager for IMU facilities. He said the lower current in LED bulbs means lower heat and a higher likelihood that bulbs will burn bright through the season. The plastic lens on the bulbs reduces the chance that they could shatter when blown around in the wind.

LED bulbs also makes the jobs of IMU staff a little easier. Less wiring preparation is required, and strings of lights can be hung without fear of shattering bulbs.

Preparation for the candle hanging begins in September as the maintenance staff begins to wire the 150 red and 33 white bulbs used for the 80-foot-tall candle on the east tower of the IMU as well as the 88 red and 34 white bulbs for the 60-foot-tall candle on the west tower. The installation of each candle requires about six hours of labor, which often happens in snow, rain wind or sleet. The most difficult part of the installation process, according to facilities staff Jeff Hunt, is the lowering of the 75-pound top of the east tower candle.

"One wrong move," he said, "and it's all over."

But the staff agrees that the hours of preparation, heavy lifting and cold weather are all worth the reaction from the IU community.

IMU facilities staff members Donnie Hillenburg, John Walker, Paul Lirot and Jeff Hunt installed the candles on Nov. 14. Photos by Aaron Cornia and James Brosher, Indiana University

"It's kind of a passion for those of us on the maintenance team," Kannady said. "Not because we are looking for any kind of recognition for it, but because it's been a long-standing tradition within our department. It's our holiday contribution to the university and the community."

And even though the tradition is evolving a bit this year, IMU staff members are confident that it will continue to be part of the campus' holiday traditions for at least 50 more years.

"If you think about a candle and how inclusive that is at this time of year, it doesn't matter what your faith is or what you're celebrating; a candle will likely resonate with you," Chrzastowski said.

"The candle in the window is a sign of welcoming," Kannady added. "That's what the IMU is all about: welcoming anyone and everyone. It's the first and most important part of our mission."