For a good cause
Zach Stoltenberg and another man at his office were known as the guys who did the crazy Christmas lights. Then, in March, his coworker’s son was diagnosed with Pontine Glioma, a type of cancer that is inoperable because it fuses to the brain stem.
The family went to Memphis for six months to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for treatment.
Stoltenberg said that after having his lights up last year, he thought they could be more than just decorations.
This year, Stoltenberg has a box in front of his display for donations to St. Jude’s. He hopes to reach $500, but would love to get more.
Stoltenberg said people can drop donations off in the box or mail them to his house, 4530 Larissa Dr. He said another option is to mail donations straight to the hospital or donate online through the hospital’s website.
Friends through lights
When Zach Stoltenberg first met Gary Martin, he was just learning how to animate Christmas lights. Martin, who is now in his third year of animated light displays, is known for his display at 1132 Parkside Circle.
Martin is a computer engineer who says he’s always dabbled in electronics, and he loves programming the lights for his house.
“I’ve been a Christmas light nut forever,” he said.
Martin grew up in Atchison in an area where every house for three square blocks was covered in lights.
“My childhood was full of very elaborate Griswold-ness,” he said.
This year, he’s rolled out a new 25-foot-tall tree made of LED lights. His display is significantly larger than Stoltenberg’s, with almost 40,000 lights and 10 songs, all to give something back to the community.
“A lot of people these days don’t bother with lights at all,” he said. “I’m trying to promote the idea of lighting up for the season and spreading the cheer around.”
Zach Stoltenberg moved furniture into his new house on a corner lot with his wife, Alicia, on Nov. 7. The very next day, he started putting Christmas lights up on the house. In fact, he had his holiday light display figured out before the house even was built.
Three weeks later, the Stoltenbergs had a fully animated light display made of 10,000 LED lights, coordinated with 20 minutes of holiday music. The display, which is on from 6 p.m. to midnight every night, is much more than a holiday pastime for Zach.
“It’s a hobby. I do it all year,” the 27-year-old said. “It’s what I do for fun. I don’t ever want to make money off it.”
This year is the first for the display at their new house at 4530 Larissa Drive, but the second year of an animated display. Passersby can tune into 98.7 FM on their radios and listen to the music the lights are timed to. Also new this year is the fundraising Zach has coupled with the display, and he hopes to raise $500 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital through donations.
Zach’s love for the holidays started with his family in Nebraska, and he fondly remembers searching for the perfect Christmas tree on the tree farm with his family and putting up lights with his father.
“Christmas was a big deal,” he said.
While living in a fraternity at Kansas University, where he was getting his architecture degree, holidays were pretty much absent from the halls. So when Zach and Alicia got married and moved to their first home on New Jersey Street in 2007, he was determined to have a holiday, no matter how little money they had to do it.
“I said, ‘I’ve had enough of this. We’re going to have Christmas if it kills us,’” Zach said.
That first year, Alicia gave Zach a budget of $50 for holiday decorations, and he decorated the house with a couple strings of white lights and smaller trees. Soon, though, he was tinkering with decorations, at one point rewiring a string of chaser lights to look like a pinwheel spinning.
A homemade North Pole later, Zach had logged onto PlanetChristmas.com and met Lawrence resident Gary Martin, who also animates the lights on his house.
Last holiday season, Zach made the jump into animated holiday lights. When he and Alicia started looking for a site for a new house, they knew they had to consider the lighting show.
“This house was designed around our family, but a lot of it was around the display too,” he said.
They chose a corner lot with few neighbors and plenty of parking space on the side of the road, and then got to work on this year’s display.
Zach ordered this year’s lights on Jan. 15, then got to work programming the lights to songs. Each 30-second portion takes eight hours to program, so for his 20-minute program, he’s spent the equivalent of 14 days programming.
“You’ve got to be crazy to do this,” he said, laughing.
Despite having thousands of lights on his house and in his yard, Zach said LED lights use only 10 percent of the power of normal Christmas lights, and his electric bill had actually gone down this month.
“The lights aren’t all on at the same time; only a quarter are on at the same time,” he said.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t invested a lot into the lights, though. He said during the last three years he’s probably spent $4,000 to $5,000 on the decorations, something Alicia tries not to think about. She said she’s happy he’s not spending money on more destructive hobbies, though.
“I know it’s something he really enjoys,” she said. “I really like them; it’s just weird that it’s my house.”
Zach said he hopes to continue decorating for years, perhaps even with the help of his son, Micah, who will turn 2 in March. This year Micah tried to help assemble the lights, although his motor skills weren’t quite advanced enough yet.
For now, he’ll keep expanding and programming his light show.
“At least until I get too old to do it,” he said.
For more info on Zach’s display, visit his website at www.lightuplawrence.net.