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Flint remembers past Christmases

Walter Flint spent two weeks most years decorating his Third Avenue home ahead of the Christmas season, but not this year.

Walter Flint spent two weeks most years decorating his Third Avenue home ahead of the Christmas season, but not this year.

ALBANY, Ga. -- In the past week, cars have slowly driven down Third Avenue in Albany, looking for a sight that is as much a Christmas tradition in the community as lighted trees and wreaths on doors.

But as they pass by 615 W. Third Ave., they're passing memories of Christmases past.

The starry white lights that since 1957 have outlined the house every Christmas season aren't glowing. Santa isn't sitting in a convertible car out front, warmly waving to passers-by, many of whom are taking grandchildren by the same spot that captured the spirit of the season for them when they were wide-eyed children looking from their own parents' cars.

"I dearly love the lights, and I want them to be a happy memory," the Rev. Walter Flint said Friday. "The lights were a big part of this town for over half a century. Even now, I see cars come up at night and slow down and then take off. I know they're disappointed.

"When a grown man would tell you, 'When I was his age,' and point at his grandson, 'my parents used to bring me by,' you know it's been a long time."

Indeed, Flint has been trying to "retire" from his Christmas tradition -- one that was essentially born half a world away in India -- since 2006. He didn't put them up in 2007, the year Easter Seals of Southwest Georgia made his annual display into the city's Christmas ornament. That prompted him to resurrect the lights and waving Santa in 2008, and he did it again in 2009.

But those, he said, were the final encores, and for a simple reason. At 87, he's reached the point where the two weeks of work setting up the display are just too physically demanding.

"The boys that started out with me as teenagers, they're in their 50s now," he said. "They're getting worn out, and I sure am.

"I wish I were 10 years younger and my helpers were, too. We always had a good time, but it takes about two weeks of work and I'm just getting too old for that. So many people can't believe it's over ... but I did it 53 years."

And with the exception of '07, motorists and their families have crept by the home, looking for the sign that the Christmas season had arrived.

"From the telephone calls I get, people ... it's almost as if they want to know, 'Why can't we do something about it?' But, of course, you can't," Flint said. "It was a labor of love, and it just grew over the years.

There's some talk that that part of the display or a photo collection depicting it as it evolved through the years might find its way to Thronateeska Heritage Center, which has iconic Albany memorabilia such as the neon rotating ice-cream licking bear that once rotated over the landmark Arctic Bear restaurant.

"I've had a call asking if we'd be interested in getting the collection," Thronateeska Executive Director Tommy Gregors said Friday. But museum officials and Flint haven't had any discussions yet, he said.

LIGHTS OF INDIA

Many traditions evolve from small events that don't seem pivotal at the time. Flint's Albany tradition shares that.

During World War II, he was an Army sergeant serving in the Armed Forces Radio Service in Lido and later New Dehli. The New Jersey native, who joined the military in 1942, was overseas during the holidays, longing for a Christmas tree.

"What they are is they're the lights that are used in radio dials," Flint says of the 10,000-plus white lights that outlined his home. "When I was in the Army in India -- that's when it started ... I was over in New Dehli and Burma -- I tried to get the supply sergeant to get me 100 Christmas tree lights. You know, the old colored bulbs.

"They said, 'Look, sergeant, you're in the Army. You don't get no lights.' Well, I thought, 'I'll just fix you up.' I ordered 1,000 pilot lights. Those are small ones that go in the radio dial to light it up. We were running the radio station over there.

"So," he continued, "I got 1,000 lights, wired them to copper wire, put them on a scruffy old tree, because you couldn't get a good cedar or anything in India, and everybody loved it -- the natives, the Indian people, the Brits, the GI's ... they all came by to see that tree. I said, 'This is something I can do when I get to be a civilian again.'"

That's exactly what he did. After returning to the states, he went back to school and got his bachelor's degree from New Jersey College before getting an advanced degree in public relations and communications from Columbia University. On the day after he graduated in 1948, he got a phone call from Milt George, who owned WGPC radio in Albany.

George offered him a job at $50 a week. That was enough to convince him to load up his 9-year-old Plymouth and drive south for "a while" that has lasted 62 years.

"For 20 years, I woke this town up," Flint said. "We had (an affiliation with) CBS, which was a good network, but we only had 250 watts. You could hardly hear us across the river. But we had a good time. Albany was such a nice town in those days."

Flint would get off work at 7 p.m. and drive over to the baseball park -- Mills Stadium, initially, and later Cardinal Park on Newton Road -- where he sold tickets for the St. Louis Cardinals' farm team.

"It was wonderful working for Milt George, but he didn't pay very much," Flint recalled. "It took two jobs to make one living, but we still had a good time."

START OF A TRADITION

"The first year I was in Albany, I made a big tree for WGPC and put it on the balcony of the New Albany Hotel," he said. "Our studios were in the New Albany. Everybody came by to see it."

His job in radio landed him a gig as St. Nick in Albany's 1954 Christmas parade, too.

"I remember it well," he said. "I was 30 years old and they asked me to be Santa. I remember it paid $75. That was a fortune in those days. And on the check, the guy from the chamber of commerce, on the purpose part of it said 'Impostor's fee.'"

Even as Santa, he learned to improvise.

"Bobs Candy Company sent a huge box of candy canes and little candy sour balls and all, which I was to throw out to the kids," he said. "I started that way -- I was in the big parade at night -- so I started laughing more and throwing out less candy.

"And a little kid yelled at me, 'Hey, Santa! Quit laughing so much and throw out the candy!'"

Flint has his own memories of wonderful Christmas images from those days.

"This town has changed so much," he said. "I remember when our Christmas decorations consisted of colored lights stretched across Pine and Broad (then the city's primary business district) with Spanish moss put in to make it look pretty by day.

"Believe me, it was more touching than it is with all these lights put up downtown now."

And Flint has some very specific ideas about how lights should be displayed.

"Some people have no sense for it," he noted. "They'll outline a house with multicolored lights. Your eye can't follow different colors. You use the clear lights if you're going to outline something, or you use all one color. All blue or all red. That's OK."

But Flint has a special love for the radio dial lights he used at his home. He bought his first batch from Philco -- 1,000 at a nickel a piece, a $50 investment that was quite sizable for the 1950s. The bulbs are soldered on the wiring.

"Those lights have a very tiny filament, about an eighth of an inch across, and they're very bright," he said. "They look a lot more like stars than these frosted bulbs do. Anyway, they're all hand-wired, so when you put them in place, they stay there. ... The nice thing about them -- some of them have been in use for 50 years, and they're still working beautifully."

SOME ARE NAUGHTY

Three years after he played Santa, Flint was bitten by the bug to decorate his home. He never shook it. By then, he was getting into a second job working on and building sound equipment such as amplifiers and hi-fi radios.

"The house was done in '57. That's when I started," Flint said. "For three years, it was just the house and it was very pretty. But I had a sports car then, it was an MG. So, I said I'm going to put it out there on the lawn. And a friend of mine said, 'Let's make a Santa Claus from chicken wire and paper mache.'

"The first night it was out, Santa was kidnapped. I didn't know who did it, but I came in the house and called the police. Within an hour, they found out who did it and brought it back. They found it in the bed of a truck out at the Midtown Shopping Center. He was back waving that night."

Despite the rocky start with the teen prank, Santa became an important part of the show, though he didn't ride in a sleigh. Some years, he rode better than Flint.

"Santa's had so many different cars," Flint said. "When I had my own Jaguar, I put him in that and I rode a bicycle for three weeks."

STILL WORKING

While Flint has drawn a close to this big part of his life, he's far from retired.

Every weekend he drives a 200-mile circuit from Albany to Fort Gaines, where he is pastor of Fort Gaines First Prebysterian Church, down to Elmodel, where he is pastor of Baker County's only Presbyterian Church, and then back to Albany. Twice he's hit deer while traveling to his churches.

But he doesn't give any sign of retiring from his work as a minister anytime soon.

"I've been blessed with good health my whole life," he said.

Flint can be philosophical: "Happiness is an internal thing," he says at one point during an interview. "If you've got your family and you've got people who admire you and whom you love, you do all right."

But he also is a man of faith, even as he deals pragmatically with the demands of time.

"The lights have been part of my life," he said. "A little part of me died when they died. But at my age, I'm not going to be around forever. You have to face up to those things. I don't get morbid about it. When I'm gone, I won't be worried. As a Christian, I think God has something better for me to do. But I sure like it here."

In the end, Flint shares a final connection with those who have enjoyed his light display for the last 53 years -- cherished Christmas memories that will live on in their hearts.