On the Hillcrest Shopping Center roof the other day, Peter Dahl used liquid nail adhesive to reattach the head of a 75-pound fiberglass camel. He then returned the animal to its proper place, next to one of the three wise men.
These Nativity statues have required a lot of stitching up and repainting over the years, though that's understandable, given that baby Jesus and friends have graced the roof of the Lawrence strip mall for more than a half-century.
"I've had to patch these things up so many times it's amazing," Dahl said on a chilly afternoon on the roof at Ninth and Iowa streets. "The wind does a number on them."
Still, the life-size figures have survived vandals, snowstorms and would-be thieves to be a Lawrence tradition since the late 1950s. "For us townies, when you see that up there you know the holidays are here," said Dahl.
Dick Raney built Hillcrest Shopping Center, one of the first strip mails in Lawrence, in 1957. He put the Nativity up scene not long after, on the suggestion of his mother, Mildred, a choir director with Christmas spirit to spare.
For more than 20 years, Dahl, a self-employed contractor who lives in Lawrence, has been tasked with setting up and lighting the display. One day last week, he fetched the characters from the shopping center basement before carrying them, by ladder, onto the roof. He then screwed them onto their platform, securing them from the wind. The entire process generally takes a couple of days.
On Thanksgiving night, as he does every year, Dahl lit the nativity scene, signaling the start of the Christmas season to people in the heart of Lawrence. As is customary, he will take the set down Jan. 1.
Dahl is amazed that the figures have lasted as long as they have. He attributes it to the craftsmanship used back in those days. "Just look at the quality of material compared to now," he said. "That stuff was made to last." Even so, he has had to repair them too many times to count, gluing body parts back together and using mannequin heads as replacements. "But from the street, you can't tell the difference," he said. While Raney can't remember where exactly he bought the statues, they are inscribed with the name of Frankenmuth, Mich.-based Brunner's Christmas Wonderland, which is still in existence today.
People have even tried to steal and vandalize the figures. One Christmas some local kids filmed themselves bashing the Nativity characters' heads with baseball bats. Their crimes weren't discovered — until one of their moms found the video.
"We lost the cow in a windstorm," Dahl added. A local homeowner later phoned Raney to tell him he found it in his driveway.
Raney's grandson, Jehren, who now manages the shopping center, said he remembers how, when he was a child, his mother would always stop by the building to look at the Nativity scene. "It's been a staple here in Lawrence since we started putting it up," said Raney, 35, of Overland Park.
For his part, Raney, 85, said he plans to keep displaying the Biblical characters for the foreseeable future.
"It's a tradition we've had for 50 years," said the Lawrence resident, adding: "It seems to be rather widely appreciated."