by Peter Jakey–Managing Editor
An organization built around helping youth of the community continues a tradition that started 21 years ago.
The Rogers City Optimist Club is only a few weeks away from the annual tree-lighting celebration at Westminster Park.
With the city’s blessing, the club started selling trees in 1996 as a way of remembering loved ones and celebrating the holidays in Rogers City.
The Westminster Memorial Christmas tree project was well received from the very start with 120 trees sponsored in the first year. It has leveled off at 132 for the last several years.
The tree lighting has grown into a tradition all its own. Santa arrives the day before Thanksgiving to mark the official kickoff of the Christmas season. He counts down with the crowd and lights the trees.
Before that can occur, the trees need to be purchased. They come from a grower in Cheboygan County, said Terry Larson, who was there to sign the club charter in the Rainbow Room in 1973. They will be picked up a week from tomorrow and dropped off at the park.
With assistance from community corrections, the trees are staked, electrical lines readied and the trees go up.
The next step is decorating. Members of Rogers City High School’s National Honor Society arrive the Saturday before Thanksgiving to finish up by making them look nice. Santa and the community do the rest.
From an emotional standpoint, it means a lot to the sponsoring families. “Different people write different things,” said longtime club member Mike Marx. “Anywhere from a remembrance to wishing Rogers City holiday greetings.” Marx creates the laminated signs that are placed with the tree.
“For some, they park down there and just look at their tree,” said Larson.
“There is such a broad spectrum of messages,” said Richard Wozniak, another longtime member who remains very active. “In our case, my wife and I opted to put all four of our grandkids on them.”
“That’s what we did this year,” added Larson.
Visiting families arriving in Rogers City for a Christmas visit have to drive by the park at some point during their stay, to see the park illuminated.
It remains one of the top-two fundraisers for the club, along with the August golf tournament.
“We’re a club that looks to help the community,” said Marx.
The Optimists sponsor/support many projects in the community and follow a simple motto: “friend of youth.”
They are involved with the oratorical contest for junior and senior youth; Cub Scout pinewood derby; Cub Scout mobile race along Huron Avenue; Rogers City Elementary School fourth-grade pinewood derby; student of the month advertisements; and the spring break afternoon at Nautical Lanes.
In 1973, the Alpena Optimist Club sponsored the start up of the club in Rogers City. They have met almost exclusively at the same location for 44 years. The Rainbow Room is now the meeting room in back of The Lighthouse Restaurant.
The Bannasch family, who own and runs The Lighthouse and Nautical Lanes, have been strong supporters over the years.
“When we first started meeting, we were a breakfast club,” said Larson. “We would meet Thursday mornings at 7 a.m. and Lila Bannasch would cook breakfast for us and we always had some fantastic food.”
That’s where club members continue to meet, every Wednesday, but now at noon.
“Everyone is welcome, new members are encouraged and needed,” said Larson. There are 32 involved at the moment.
To sponsor a tree, there is a form available at Calcite Credit Union or mail $40 to Optimist Club of Rogers City, c/o Gary Altman, 2647 East Mill Highway, Rogers City, Michigan, 49779.
“Last year, out of 132 trees, we had sponsors for all but eight,” said Larson. “We need to fill those slots up.”
Anyone with questions can contact Wozniak at (989) 734-4432 or Larson at (989) 734-4453.