The rich and replete history of the Flagstaff star
This article was originally published Nov. 27, 2006.
Craig Reynolds walks up to the star on Flagstaff Mountain. It’s his job to maintain a holiday tradition that most people hold dear but know little about.
Reynolds, a 54 year-old electrician, picks old, brown and rusty wire off the ground. He finds more of it in a tree trunk. The tree has grown since the star was first lighted on December 22, 1947.
It’s his job to repair any damage done to the star, damage that occurred over the years for a variety of reasons.
The star has been reshaped into a peace sign in the 1960s, a No. 1 sign when CU won the football national championship in 1990, and an M sign to symbolize the School of Mines. It was painted red in the 1950s and reshaped into the Star of David twice, according to a local who lived in the area at the time.
A group calling itself ‘the monkey wrench gang’ stole all the light bulbs and put them in the mayor’s house in March 1980, according to a Daily Camera article.
There was controversy in March 1970 about the Boulder Chamber of Commerce maintaining a religious symbol. The star used to be refashioned into a cross for Easter before the chamber decided to eliminate that tradition.
Lord & Reynolds Electrical Services, Inc. took responsibility for the star in 1999. Reynolds made many changes to it, including new light posts and yellow industrial wire. This makes it much harder to vandalize it.
“If it’s shaking around, people will see it,” Reynolds said. “There are people that watch it all night long. It was vandalized one year, and down in the north Broadway shops, there is a barbershop. I was in there a couple of weeks later getting my hair cut and Charlie, the owner at the time, said: ‘Hey, when that thing got vandalized, I was over at my girlfriend’s house, and we saw the thing shaking around.’ So people see it. We leave it on all night.”
Reynolds said some people come up to ski under the star.
“It’s not steep enough for me,” Reynolds said. “Put some moguls on it, I’d go for it.”
Local couples come up to have a rendezvous and leave reminders of their presence. Reynolds takes it upon himself to clean up some of the pollution.
“We find beer bottles and condoms up here all the time,” Reynolds said. “When we first started up here, there were all kinds of stuff. Every year when we’re up here changing light bulbs, as we take all the old broken light bulbs out, we take as much trash as we can, too.”
The star almost went away a few years ago, Reynolds said. The community rallied to keep the holiday tradition.
“When the star almost went away,” Reynolds said, “and the Boulder chamber got us to redo it, they needed to raise some money for it. So they had a sell-a-light-bulb campaign, and it was five dollars a light bulb. School kids brought in their piggy banks and bought a light bulb. It was a really big community effort.”
The star’s first design was not drawn on paper. It was toilet paper lain out by volunteers in 1947, Reynolds said.
“They laid it all out and set the poles.”
The star has silver light posts that came as part of Reynolds’ repairs. Other light posts are brown and weathered, reminding all who see them of how long the star has been a tradition. Two brown poles, designed for the Easter cross, are now unused.
Walter Wagenhals, 72, the city attorney from 1968 until 1978, remembers when the city decided to stop converting the star into a cross.
“It was certainly a Christian symbol because you could see it throughout the entire community,” Wagenhals said. “So my opinion at the time, and I think it was consistent with the opinions of some of the courts, was that this was contrary to the Constitution prohibiting the establishment of a support for a particular religion.”
The chamber decided to keep the star while it eliminated the cross.
“They felt the star was more of a commercial type of symbol without the substantial overtones of a religion,” Wagenhals said. “It was more of a cultural type of symbol rather than associated with a particular religion. Therefore, it could be lighted by the city and it could remain.
“I didn’t think it was contrary to the Constitution,” Wagenhals said. “They had the right to keep it there if they wished.
“Those were heated issues and still are heated issues. These things hit emotional cores. I was the lawyer. It made no difference if I was secular, Christian or Jewish. I just called the law as I saw it.”
Wagenhals’ wife, Patricia, 72, remembers the issue well. She said her family received police protection because of a fear of retaliation for his stance against the cross.
“I remember that things got hot and heavy,” Patricia said. “They had given police protection to all the council and the city manager. They patrolled around our house quite a bit. Many city councilmen had been threatened.
“I guess it was the right wing nuts who were around there,” Patricia said. “They didn’t want their cross and star to go. Walt sort of blew that stuff off. He didn’t pay a lot of attention to it when there were threats and things.”
Patricia found humor in some of the vandalism done to the star.
“I thought it was a real hoot when someone painted it all red for the Russians,” Patricia said. “They changed it into the Star of David a couple of times; that was pretty funny too.”
She laughed about the realignment of the star into a peace sign and thinks it would work again now.
“That was great. I had forgotten about that. I liked that, too. That was when the peace sign was big. If you’re looking for something to do this season, you might want to go up and do that.”
She thought the star should be removed along with the cross.
“I actually thought that both the star and the cross ought to go,” Patricia said. “I am a very secular person, and I thought both were ridiculous. I remember that it was a compromise to keep the star because the star was sort of a ubiquitous symbol. A cross is a cross, and you can’t get away from its symbolism.”
Stan Zemler, 52, was chamber president from 1997 until 2003. He didn’t have any protests over the religious meaning of the star while he was in office.
“I don’t think that’s been an issue for a long time,” Zemler said. “I’m Jewish, and I always joked about putting a fifth wing on this thing. I think people just see it as a symbol of a nice time of the year and a reflection of the holiday season. We didn’t take any flak from anybody for it having a religious connotation.”
Zemler said the chamber inherited responsibility over the star during his watch.
“The star had been lighting since 1947,” Zemler said. “So, we basically decided to go up and look at it, and it was in horrendous shape. It was basically old knob and tube wiring. The wire went to these exposed knobs. How someone didn’t get a jolt from that after all those years was kind of a surprise. It was very low to the ground, that’s why it was so easy to fix the lines or rearrange it.”
He helped Craig Reynolds repair the star. The second year of repairs brought in the new silver poles, Zemler said.
“The second year we realized that it was easily vandalized because it was hanging low,” Reynolds said. “We went back and redid all the poles and designed – Craig had a lot to do with this – a system to get it high enough off the ground so it wasn’t easy to vandalize. If you can figure out how to rearrange that, more power to you.”
His fondness of the star motivated him to maintain it.
“I always enjoyed looking at it,” Zemler said. “When they said, ‘we’re shutting it off. What are you going to do about it?’ I guess sort of the cynical side of me was, ‘I didn’t realize this was my job.’
“Once I stepped over the threshold, I thought, ‘Hey, if we don’t do this, I don’t think anybody is going to do it.'”
Zemler encountered protesters along the way, but changed their minds with a few words and a gesture.
“We were approached once by the City of Boulder who wanted to suggest that we were on City of Boulder open space, and that this might not be appropriate use of open space and maybe we should go through some sort of permit process,” Zemler said. “My comment back to them was, ‘I think you’re talking to the wrong guy. I’m just here working. I think you need to go talk to them.’ And I pointed down into town from up there. I said, ‘Go talk to the people.’ They didn’t bother us again after that. In fact, they helped us. They turned around and brought some piece of equipment that helped haul things up the hill.”