Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Person of the Week

Kerry Desmond: Cue the Lights


For retired industrial logistics specialist Kerry Desmond, an opportunity to help coordinate the 450,000 Christmas lights that are part of Ivoryton Illuminations is right up his alley. This year’s celebration begins on Saturday, Dec. 7. Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier

For retired industrial logistics specialist Kerry Desmond, an opportunity to help coordinate the 450,000 Christmas lights that are part of Ivoryton Illuminations is right up his alley. This year’s celebration begins on Saturday, Dec. 7. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

How do you have 450,000 Christmas lights without an energy bill that breaks even Santa’s budget? Kerry Desmond says it can be done. Kerry has worked for the last three years with Ivoryton Illuminations, the Christmas celebration beginning on Saturday, Dec. 7 that turns the Ivoryton Green into a blaze of holiday lights for the entire month. Most of the lights are LED bulbs.

“They don’t get hot; they use very little electricity,” Kerry explains.

“Of course its fun for the volunteers, but it’s really all about the kids as far as I am concerned,” Kerry says. “I like it because it’s not too commercial and it brings in lots of diverse groups.”

Last year, Kerry points out, the Ivoryton light show was rated among the best holiday extravaganzas in Connecticut. Essex had double recognition on at least one Internet site, which also gave high ratings to Trees in the Rigging sponsored by the Connecticut River Museum. Trees in the Rigging, this year on Sunday, Dec. 1 starting at 4:30 p.m. at Essex Town Hall, features a parade, caroling, and decorated boats filing past the dock at the Connecticut River Museum.

Ivoryton Illuminations, from 5 to 8 p.m. on Dec. 7, features Santa Claus arriving in a sleigh out of the night sky at 6 p.m. in front of the Ivoryton Playhouse. That moment, Kerry says, can present a challenge.

“The lights have to go on when Santa comes out of the sleigh. It has to happen on cue. If somebody forgets to flip the switch, it can be a little awkward,” he says.

On opening night, Christmas music plays throughout the Green. On other nights visitors can hear the music, coordinated to the dancing lights, by turning radios to 101.5 FM.

It is well known that reindeer, led by the famous Rudolph, draws Santa’s sleigh, but it is also true that the reindeer get a helping hand in Ivoryton from a crane provided by Richard Riggio & Sons General Contractors of Ivoryton. If Santa looks a bit like Ivoryton’s Bill Niedbala, it is only because Santa and Niedbala have a family connection.

In addition to Santa, whom children can visit in the Ivoryton Playhouse, the Christmas festivities include a petting zoo, face painting, cake decorating and the now-familiar Elf on the Shelf scavenger hunt.

Kerry is the administrator, organizing the jobs that need to be done and setting up the work schedules of volunteers who put together the Illuminations show.

Among those who helped set up the light show this year are volunteers from the Ivoryton Alliance, which organizes Illuminations, as well as members of the Essex Lions Club, of which Kerry is an active member. Several local high school students have also showed up to work this year.

“They were knocking it out of the park,” Kerry says.

Kerry’s wife Cathy Shanley, who is also a regular at Illuminations set-up, got group of volunteers this year from Connecticut Coastal Academy, which specializes in programs for at-risk young people with learning challenges. Most of Shanley’s professional career involved placing people with intellectual and psychological disabilities in meaningful employment.

“Cathy had organized work for them [volunteers from Connecticut Coastal Academy] that she thought would take two or three hours. They did it in one; there was a lot of joy with those kids,” Kerry says.

Organizing projects is not only what Kerry does as a volunteer; it is what he did as a profession. Kerry, now retired, was a logistics specialist at The Clorox Company. He is bringing some of the skills he learned professionally to Ivoryton Illuminations. He would like to cut back volunteer hours by not replicating tasks.

“I learned in manufacturing never touch anything two times and always keep quality at the forefront,” he says.

One result is that this year, volunteers will not test the light strands beforehand but only as they are put in place.

“Instead of checking every light before but only as we light them, we save a couple days work,” Kerry explains.

Ivoryton Illuminations uses two kinds of lights strands, one group of permanent strands saved from year to year.

“They are professional grade, robust, heavy duty,” Kerry says.

The other bulb strands, not as heavy, are often used for the tops of trees. They are disposable and not kept.

“When you pull them down, you touch them once and they fall apart,” Kerry adds.

Work on Ivoryton Illuminations for volunteers begins in October, starting with wrapping lights around the big plastic orbs that are a part of the decorations. By the time the process is finished, lights, designed by Steve May, are all over the green.

“I think of it like walking through an enchanted forest,” Kerry says.

Kerry loves the camaraderie that develops as the volunteers work on the project.

“Volunteers are our biggest assets. We want to make sure they have fun,” he says. “And we do have a pretty good time.”

Ivoryton Illuminations

Ivoryton Illuminations begins on Saturday, Dec 7 with an event from 5 to 8 p.m. on the Ivoryton Green. The Light show lasts all of December. Event day parking is at the former site of the Ivoryton Congregational Church at 57 Main Street in Ivoryton, as well as a new spot, the Essex Elementary School at 108 Main Street in Centerbrook. The shuttle bus starts at 4.30 p.m. and runs continuously until 8:30 p.m.

Rita Christopher is the Senior Correspondent for Zip06. Email Rita at

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