Gordon White recalled watching the Sundar Shadi Christmas display go up from the first star, and the time he saw Shadi precariously perched on a rickety ladder.
With the simple words, “Hey, let me put the lights up, “ White began a 30-year run assisting with the annual creation of El Cerrito’s well-known replica of the town of Bethlehem.
Shadi, who was very particular about the configuration of the display, was hesitant to accept help, and gave White “lots of lessons” over the years, on everything from light bulb management to positioning the buildings so they look just right to observers below.
“It’s always been a pleasure to put it up,” recalled White, a retired El Cerrito firefighter who was honored Saturday morning for his long tenure with the display. Rich Bartke, another key volunteer, surprised White with the presentation of a plaque honoring White’s service. A copy of the plaque was also made, for display next to the holiday exhibit.
An estimated 50 to 75 volunteers crowded the hillside along Moeser Lane at Sea View Drive Saturday morning to set up the display for its two-week run. Several observers said it was the largest group of volunteers ever, ranging from veterans like White and El Cerrito firefighters to those helping for the first time, like 15-year-old Shamim Bayat. Bayat is from Iran and in the U.S. on a humanitarian visa. He has been an El Cerrito High student for just three days.
The crowd included many young volunteers. Some like Bayat were with family. Others were with El Cerrito Boy Scout Troop 104, whose plans for the day included serving breakfast and dinner at the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program shelter. The group has also adopted two families for the holidays, according to one of their adult leaders, Steve Jeung.
Donna Houser was busy signing up volunteer shepherds, needed for the two shifts, each 2½ hours, each night of the two-week run to answer questions, hand out candy canes, and look after the exhibit.
Houser’s family has been involved in the display for some time – her oldest son Matthew redid two camels for his Eagle Scout project several years ago, for example – but she is also part of the new-guard volunteer leadership.
Although the display is an El Cerrito tradition dating back to 1950, it has undergone changes over the years. Shadi had to give up putting up the display next to his Arlington Boulevard home in 1997 at age 97, and there were no displays through 2001. Eventually, with the support of one of Shadi’s daughters, Rich and Jane Bartke were able to gain possession for the community of Shadi’s collection of sheep, buildings, and other elements of the display and, among other tasks, arrange storage space and the current location along Moeser Lane.
They are in the process of handing off much of the responsibility to a new crew of volunteer leaders, including Houser. Another of the new volunteer leaders, Michele Jawad, said this is a transition year and organizers will hold a post-meeting to refine the process for next year. One goal she has is to gain historical recognition for the display.
The display will be up through Dec. 27. For more information, see its Facebook Page.
A video of Gordon White receiving the plaque of appreciation can be seen on YouTube. It was posted by Chris Treadway of the Contra Costa Times.
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