Friday, December 23, 2011

My lesson in faith and the meaning of Christmas

These are news stories I wrote, which appeared in the Dec. 21, 2000 issue of the Sentinel-Tribune, a Bowling Green, Ohio newspaper. The second story references "It's a Wonderful Life," but read the first story first to get the necessary background.

Come One, Come All

One year ago Wednesday, fire destroyed the home of Kevin and Faith Olson, located on the corner of (address deleted). One year later, they held a party to show their new house and to thank everyone who has helped them.

The invitation was general; family, friends, neighbors and strangers alike were welcome. Faith Olson also invited students from her past three semesters of health education for elementary school teachers class at Bowling Green State University. "I've said from the first day 'there's a party at my house on the last day of class.'"

Kevin Olson was sick and could not attend the party, but their daughters, Tanaya and April, were there.
Visitors parked at City Park and were taken to the house by a horse-drawn wagon hired by the Olsons for the evening. Even though last year's fire was caused by an unattended candle, the family didn't shy away from their use and luminaries met visitors along the walkway to the front door. "They're outside," Faith said about this year's candles.

Inside, visitors were met by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, of which the Olsons are members, and could watch a video of the old house being town down and browse through a photo album of the old home.

On the walls were signs thanking and recognizing businesses and individuals who were involved in the construction of the house and who provided services for the party, along with messages drawn by several children. One message from a girl who signed her name only as Chelsea wrote "I hope you never have another fire. I hope you have Merry Christmas."

As a thank you gift for all of the help they received in the aftermath of the fire, the Olsons gave everyone a copy of "Mr. Krueger's Christmas," a film starring James Stewart and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that was produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (see related story below). "I thought what can we give people to thank them for what they've done for us," said Faith of the videos and the open house.

She thought the film was appropriate as the family does not watch R-rated movies and the message of the film was appropriate to show their thanks.

The family had a lot to be thankful for. When their home burned down last year, the Olsons lost everything except the clothes on their back and some jewelry that belonged to Faith's mother.

In response, neighbors banded together to help them out. Jerry Ricahrdson, who lives a block away, was on his way home from a BGSU basketball game when the fire was still raging. He stopped down and talked to the Olsons. "Faith said she knew me," but Richardson didn't remember her. Since then, they have become close friends.

The morning following the fire, Richardson visited another neighbor, Jean Blechschmidt. "I said 'we've got to do something.'" Richardson and Blechschmidt began talking and came up with two ideas. Richardson went out and opened a bank account for the Olsons. The banker that helped him set up the account "kicked in $50 of his own," said Richardson. "I don't think he even knew (the Olsons)."
Blechschmidt hosted a collection for the family, where they collected money and food and other necessities. Other neighbors also got involved in helping out.

The night of the fire still haunts Richardson. While driving over to the party from the east side of town, he saw a fire truck with its lights and sirens running. "I though 'oh no, not tonight.'"

The new house, which is smaller than their old house, is expected to be completed by the end of February. For now, there still are bricks piled outside and scaffolding reaching up to the ceiling inside. The drywall still needs tape and mud.

When completed, the house will include a finished basement and an open loft that overlooks the great room where she plans to sit and grade papers and look out the large windows onto the city park and golf course.

"I can't wait until it's done," said Olson. "I'm going to have a party every night. It will be so much fun."
The party also gave her an opportunity to find some potential problems in the house, such as the draft in the great room as visitors opened the front door. "Maybe the door should be open the other way," she said.

Olson needs to pay attention to details. Not only does she own the house, but "I'm the general contractor," she said. She decided to serve as her own general contractor in order to save money and to hire the contractors she wanted for each specific job. "I'm pretty sequential," she said.

Her holiday spirit even extended to her housing inspectors. "People complain about the inspectors but they've been wonderful for me," she said. "If there's a problem, they point it out and I fix it."

Everything good about Christmas
A commentary

Following the loss of their home last year, the neighbors of Kevin and Faith Olson banded together for a collection to help them. 

It was a scene reminiscent of the final scene in the classic holiday film "It's a Wonderful Life," when family and friends gather at the home of George Bailey (played by James Stewart) to give him money to save his failing business and to proclaim him the richest man in town.

George was not the richest in terms of money, however. Henry F. Potter (portrayed by Lionel Barrymore) was the Scrooge-like old, mean, rich man in the film who did not have any friends. Instead, "It's a Wonderful Life" portrayed George Bailey as rich in family, friends, faith and hope, which, in my opinion, makes "It's a Wonderful Life" the best movie ever made.

On Wednesday, a year after the fire, the Olsons held an open house at their new home to thank their family, friends, neighbors and strangers for their help. As a token of their thanks, they presented each visitor with a copy of another James Stewart movie, "Mr. Krueger's Christmas."

This 1980 film produced for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is less than half an hour long, but it has a message just as powerful as the message in "It's a Wonderful Life."

A religious movie, "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" does not try to hide its religious tone. Instead, it bathes itself in religion.

Stewart, portrays a poor widowed janitor named Willy Krueger who lives in the basement of the building he maintains. He has a cat named George, harkening back to his role in "It's a Wonderful Life."

He is a lonely man and imagines himself in different situations to escape his lonely life. In one scene, he imagines himself conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In another scene, he fancies himself as a rich man of culture.

On Christmas Eve, carolers begin singing outside of his basement apartment and he invites them in. Krueger is drawn to a little girl named Clarissa, who is with the carolers. Clarissa, who is about six years old, inadvertently leaves her mittens at his home when they leave to do more caroling.

Mr. Krueger finds her mittens and places them on his tree, which is a tree Charlie Brown would be proud of. He then escapes into another daydream where he visits Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem.

In an emotional scene that likely reflects the feelings of the Olsons toward those who helped them after the fire, Mr. Krueger talks directly to baby Jesus.

"Thank you for everything you've done for me," Mr. Krueger tells Jesus in a stuttering, awed, and humbled voice. "As long as I can remember, you've been right by my side...I've always been able to count on you when I've felt dark inside. You're right there every time...even when I didn't feel good about myself."

It is a message similar to how George felt toward those who gave him money to save his business after he had considered suicide.

Clarissa and her mom return, waking Mr. Krueger from this daydream. Clarissa sees her mittens on the tree and asks Mr. Krueger about it. 

"You remind me of everything good about Christmas," he tells her.

Clarissa invites Mr. Krueger to sing with the carolers and he snatches his coat. "I love you," Clarissa tells Mr. Krueger when they get outside. 

"I love you," says the narrator. "That's what Christmas is all about."

Two movies, vastly different in length, similar in sentiment, similar in message, representative of the spirit found in the Olsons, their neighbors and in the hearts of strangers.

Merry Christmas!

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