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In Search of...The Magic Behind the Rotary Lights

By Jennifer Livingston, jlivingston@wkbt.com
Published On: Dec 02 2011 08:33:46 AM CST
Updated On: Dec 02 2011 02:51:14 PM CST

LA CROSSE, Wis. -- The Rotary Lights have fast become one of the best holiday traditions in La Crosse. And by far the most popular of all the lights - are the animated displays.
The Fire breathing dragon. The tree climbing squirrels. And new this year, the bow tying clown. But to get to here, you have to start here. "I'm gonna draw a square 9 ft. high by 8 ft. wide."

When we first caught up with La Crescent native Leo Chaput back in October, he was at the beginning stages of this years animation creation inspired by his grandson. "Last summer the circus came to town and they gave a picture of a clown to color and he took first place. I had it on the fridge at home and I thought, 'you know - that would look good in the park!' In the picture the clown is holding his bow tie. And I thought - if we can make him stretch the bow ties and it snaps out of his fingers, that would be a fun thing."

Leo is the man behind nearly all of the Rotary Light's Animated displays - but it sort of happened by accident. "I was at a rotary meeting and the president was looking for two volunteers to join the rotary lights board of directors. Well what does that involve? And he said about two meetings a year. I jumped up and said, 'I'll do it!'"

But at his first meeting, the committee addressed a concern that the parks original dragon display was falling apart and needed to be replaced. Leo, a retired welder and boilermaker offered to help. "So I told them, I can draw one on the floor here and if you like what you see - I can make it happen."

So, much like the clown he's working on here, Leo sketched his idea on the floor. "A bunch of board members said, 'It's wonderful, we love it!' And I thought, 'Oh my God.'"
What had he gotten himself into?

But three weeks later, after hours and hours of hard work, it turned out, " It was a fun project and I thought maybe next year I can do something else."

So every year since then, on October 15th, he goes from retired, to a 9-5 working volunteer. "Sometimes I'll go home at 4:00 and eat and come back at 6:00 and stay until 10:00. And I do that until November 25th. 5 days a week. I don't work on the weekends. I'm retired!"

But Leo wants to make it clear, the animated displays and everything else about the rotary lights are a team effort. When he's done with a project on his end, the lighting crew steps in to program the sequence. Then another crew helps carry it over and set it up in the park. "It's just a community helping a community. And I enjoy what I'm doing too. Anytime you're helping someone it's kind of a nice feeling. And that's what it boils down to. I'm proud of the rotary lights. If kids can go into the park and go, 'Ah!!!' Then I succeeded."

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