Sam Hunter remembers being five or six years old when his father first brought him and younger brother Greg along to help with Indianapolis’ Circle of Lights. Even at that young age, he sensed this was something very special for Dad.
| Mike Hunter holds his then 4-year-old son Sam in 1989. Sam, now an Indianapolis Local 481 member, has taken over his father’s duties on the annual Circle of Lights display.
“It was an opportunity for him to give back to his community,” Sam said. “It was definitely something for him to take his children down to, look at the Christmas tree and say, ‘I wired that.’ There’s a little bit of an appreciation factor there you don’t get in every line of work.”
Now 10 years into his own career as a journeyman wireman and member of Indianapolis Local 481, Sam understands exactly why Mike Hunter felt that way. He’s taken over his father’s duties installing and maintaining the electrical feeders for the strands of lights. He’s receiving the compliments and thanks from a community that views the annual lighting on downtown’s Monument Circle as a civic treasure.
“I understand a lot of the reasons that drew him to get involved,” Sam said.
In the early days, Sam’s biggest responsibility was distributing doughnuts to the volunteers from Local 481 helping to hang the lights on the 284-foot Soldiers & Sailors Monument. His father might have let him plug in a lightbulb if he behaved himself.
Now, like his dad before him, he has to ensure the lights come on just when they’re supposed to on the Friday night after Thanksgiving in front of about 100,000 people and countless more watching on television throughout the Hoosier State.
“It’s kind of like one of those muscle memory things,” he said. “You’ve been trained to do a job. It’s like I’m the guy with a screwdriver who has been turning all the screws. I’m making sure all the wires turn on.”
Mike Hunter, who retired in 2014, enjoys seeing his son revel in it.
“The last two years I’ve been gone, I think it’s allowed him to spread his wings and basically be recognized as Sam and not my son,” Mike said. “That was something I probably didn’t have a grasp on in the past. You can’t imagine the satisfaction of being on a jobsite and having your son work next to you.”
The Circle of Lights has been an Indianapolis tradition since 1962 and city officials wanted the IBEW’s expertise from the start. They approached Local 481, asking its members for help installing lights. Those members have done it on a volunteer basis ever since. About 200 gather on a Saturday in November and unpack six miles of light strands and two miles of garland from 55-gallon drums.
|Indianapolis Local 481 Business Manager Steve Menser is interviewed during this year’s Circle of Lights opening ceremony on Nov. 25. Photo provided by Downtown Indy, Inc.
|The Circle of Lights is aglow above Indianapolis’ Monument Circle. Local 481 members have installed the lights on a voluntary basis since 1962.
After that, they make sure all of the 4,734 lights are working after they hang them from the monument, which opened in 1902 as a tribute to Indiana residents who served in the Civil War. The five colors of lights represent the five branches of the military.
“It’s become such a big kickoff to the holiday season for the community,” Local 481 Business Manager Steve Menser said. “Now, it’s been passed on from generation to generation.
“Our members like to take their families down there and show kids that ‘I did this. I played a role in making this happen.’ It’s just a real point of pride.”
Among them for more than 30 years was Mike Hunter. He spent much of his career driving a service truck for Indianapolis-based Long Electric Co., meaning he spent most of the work day alone. Volunteering for the Circle of Lights gave him a chance to catch up with old friends.
“It was almost like a reunion type of situation for me,” Mike said. “It was so much enjoyment and I continued to go.”
In 1989, he took on added responsibilities when he was asked to install new junction boxes beneath the monument’s fountains to replace the bulky square duct wiring. He’s become a bit of a celebrity, too. Hunter has been interviewed several times by local television stations. Clerks at his neighborhood bank would tell customers, “he’s important” when he walked in.
That was fun, but the most fun was watching his two sons enjoy the experience alongside him. Sam, a Purdue University graduate, followed him into the trades. Greg graduated from Indiana University and is working as a film editor in Los Angeles.
“It was a big deal for them,” Mike said. “I am sure they had bragging rights with all their buddies when they said they helped with the lights. It’s something I really embraced because they enjoyed it.”
|Volunteers from Indianapolis Local 481 prepare garlands and lights for installation along the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in advance of this year’s Circle of Lights.
Sixth District Vice President David J. Ruhmkorff, a former Local 481 business manager, noted that Mike Hunter earned 481’s Solidarity Award in 1981. The local gives the honor to a graduating apprentice who best exemplifies the traits of a trade unionist. Hunter later served as 481’s president.
On the day the lights are installed, most of the workers are finished by 1 p.m. Not Hunter, Ruhmkorff said. He stayed the rest of the day to assure each strand worked and was always available if there was a problem during the holiday season.
“His commitment to the union and the community is second to none,” Ruhmkorff said. “And it appears the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“Passing down our skills as electricians and pride in our work from generation to generation is what has made us strong as a labor movement,” Ruhmkorff added. “This family affair will assure the citizens of Indianapolis have holiday lights for years to come and continue to put Local 481 front and center during the holiday season.”
Sam is enjoying it just as much as he did when he was a child – albeit with more responsibility. Organizers are trying to make the display more energy efficient, so Local 481 is making the transition to LED lights during the next two years. His dad is still there for advice, but stays away on the Friday when the lights come on. That is his son’s stage now.
“When you have 100,000 people show up for that event,” Mike said, “it’s just amazing.”