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How Dan Campbell’s Christmas tree grew into a symbol of hope and honor

For 40 years, Paula and Dan Campbell had the tradition of stringing Christmas lights around the Colorado Blue Spruce sitting proudly in their front yard.

In that time, the couple watched as the tree’s humble beginnings as a 5-foot-tall live Christmas tree in a pot grew into the towering 50-foot-tall behemoth it is today. Neighbors would come to the West 33rd Avenue home in droves each year to look at the sky-high holiday lights.

For 40 years, lighting the tree was the couple’s favorite tradition. Their favorite holiday also happened to be Christmas. For the last few years, though, the holiday lights seemed a little dimmer around the Campbell household.

Paula was diagnosed with cancer in her bladder and kidneys in October 2012. She died Nov. 28, 2015.

That Christmas, the Campbell home was empty.

And dark. Dan Campbell spent the holiday in Pullman with family.

This year, things were supposed to be different. Campbell was determined to carry on the tradition of lighting the magnificent tree for Paula.

“She was my No. 1 responsibility,” he said of his wife one chilly December afternoon in his South Hill home. “And in her honor, in her loving memory, I intend to keep it up.”

But a series of accidents have kept the tree a little less luminous this year and have tested the 78-year-old’s resolve. While getting trimmed, the tree’s pulley system used to hang the lights fell from the top a quarter of the way down the tree after the trimming company accidentally cut off about three feet of treetop.

Without a boom truck or tall ladder, Campbell was unable to make the fix or afford to hire a company who could.

With Christmas just days away, the retired Navy Seabee had all but given up on the possibility of stringing some of the 450 lights on the tree where they belong. Where Paula would have wanted them.

Treetops, road blocks

For years, the Campbells entrusted the task of tree trimming to one company: McElfish Tree Care. More specifically, to Ray McElfish and his daughter Shannon Sullivan.

Campbell remembers the well-regarded tree trimmer telling him to call every three years or so to get the tree pruned and shaped.

So on schedule, he made the call.

But McElfish had retired. So Campbell flipped through the white pages and landed on another tree-trimming company. Campbell doesn’t want to name the company for fear of harming their reputation, but while trimming the tree, the workers apparently chopped off the top 3 feet. And that dropped the pulley system Campbell had rigged in order to get the lights set up each year.

With the contraption farther down, the lights won’t reach the top of the tree. Dan, ever prideful, doesn’t want to fully decorate the tree unless the lights reach all of the way to the top. By his own words: “Do it right, or don’t do it at all.”

The other problem is what happens to pine trees when they’re topped. According to tree experts, while the tree likely won’t die as a result, the branches at the top will start to grow upward and “replace” the missing trunk, which in most cases results in a disfigured tree.

When Sullivan heard the tree had been topped, her reaction was akin to learning one of Dan’s children had lost a limb. She had worked with her dad for two decades trimming the tree. Her dad, Ray McElfish, referred to it as “his tree in Dan’s yard.”

“He and his wife Paula, they’re like family to us,” Sullivan said. “It’s the biggest spruce that we’ve ever manicured and taken care of. We watched that tree grow up.”

Campbell tried for days to get a hold of the trimming company. When he finally got them on the phone, he said they wanted $450 to come and fix their mistake. He said he wouldn’t pay them. Essentially, all he needed was for somebody with a boom truck to come and move the pulley system back up the trunk.

“If he’s got a 50-foot ladder, I’ll even hold it and see what’s going on on the top of the tree,” Dan said.

Christmas spirit tested

Now that Paula has passed away, Dan lives in quiet solitude with his dog Midget, a 4-year-old Boston terrier/pug mix.

By his own admission, moving on after her death has been difficult. For one, there won’t be any cookies or treats this year.

“She would make these plates of cookies, fudge, goodies, about that high,” Dan said, making an imaginary stack of cookies with his hands. “This time before she got sick, she would spend days baking. Of course, I’ve lost my goodie maker.”

The couple loved Christmas. But not the commercialized version celebrated today. They loved Christmas hymns and carols, and going to advent services at the church. They loved decorating while listening to Christmas music.

While the couple also would get a Christmas tree for inside their home, their favorite part of the holidays was illuminating the tree outside. Paula was particularity keen on watching the McElfishes get to work on trimming and replacing the crown at the top.

“It was always her favorite thing to come out and watch us,” Sullivan said.

Forty years ago, Campbell said they never planned to nurse a tree so large, but now that they had it, it’s become a neighborhood star.

“Even in the summertime, there will be people walking by who make a comment, ‘There’s the tree that’s all lit up at Christmas,’ ” Dan said. “I’ve had Avista or the city meter guy say, ‘Hey, better get that tree lit up this Christmas. I wanna see that tree lit up.’

“It’s well-known. And that’s why this year I’m ashamed of this mess.”

A happy-ish ending

Strings of lights hang from about three-quarters to the top of the tree, and Dan has plans to keep them lit through the holidays.

“I’ll leave them on until New Year’s I guess,” he said, staring at the tree’s empty branches. “Let people enjoy them.”

But, this story does end with some cheer.

When the newspaper spoke with Sullivan about the tree getting topped, she immediately called Campbell.

When she talked to him, she made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: “Dan, I understand you’re going to Pullman for Christmas. When you get back, we have a 50-foot ladder. We’re going to go back and fix that tree. No charge.”

With some work and bit a luck, the spruce on 33rd should shine brighter next Christmas.


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