Thursday, December 22, 2005

Merry Christmas to the Doonans

In this business, you get a lot of anonymous calls and letters. People want anonymity for different reasons. Some fear retribution by government or neighbors. Many don’t give a reason, but it’s pretty obvious. They want to say mean things, but they don’t want to trash their good name. Now that’s what I call having the courage of your conviction.

“This call will remain anonymous,” announced a female voice on my voice mail recorder Tuesday afternoon. “I’m calling to say that your newspaper reporting skills suck, Denise. I can’t believe that you didn’t even report that the guy who does all the Christmas lights on the Main Road near 105 is in the hospital and that’s why he can’t do the lights this year that all the children enjoy so much ... I can’t believe the newspaper didn’t even notice that the house wasn’t lit this year. I hope you break this story, Denise, because I’m calling the other papers.” CLICK.

And a very Merry Christmas to you, too, lady.

Now, let’s set the record straight.

First, Bill Doonan, “the guy who does all the lights” is not in the hospital. He had an emergency appendectomy on Nov. 11 and is abiding by his doctor’s orders to avoid heavy lifting and ladder-climbing.

Second, of course we noticed the house was dark this year. We live here, too, you know. We noticed it Thanksgiving weekend, the weekend Mr. Doonan’s been lighting up his Main Road house for the past decade. Barbaraellen Koch called his house and spoke to his wife Sharon, who jokingly said they were thinking of putting up a sign that says “No, he’s not dead. He just had an appendectomy.” We discussed writing a story about it, because we knew people were talking about it. But we decided that the man was entitled to recover from an appendectomy in privacy and peace.


“We’ve had a ton of calls,” Bill Doonan told me Tuesday afternoon, when I called his house to make sure he hadn’t in fact, suffered a complication that landed him back in the hospital. “I am alive and kicking,” the 50-year-old limousine company owner reported with a chuckle. “The rumor mill in this town is just amazing,” he noted.

Bill is really into Christmas. He’s bummed out over the darkness at his house this year, and feels a sense of responsibility to put on his spectacular light show. Bill said he and his wife actually considered hiring people to put the lights up this year. But that just didn’t seem right. “It’s something my wife and I do together, something we love to do. Our heart goes into that display,” he said.

“That display” consists of thousands of lights — too many to count — and 30 illuminated inflatables, along with more than 100 Christmas lawn ornaments. It takes the Doonans 10 full days to set it up.

“I’m an all or nothing kind of guy,” he said wistfully. Last year, he even dressed in a Santa suit — a gift from his wife — and stood outside his bedecked homestead waving to passersby. “You wouldn’t believe how many people stopped and gave me bottles of champagne,” he marveled. “Too bad I don’t drink.”

People really appreciate his efforts every year, he said. Last year, a busload of carolers knocked on his door one Saturday night and sang to him and his wife. He was so touched it made him cry. I was on that bus and saw Bill’s eyes tear up. I’d assumed it was our singing. But he was genuinely touched by our expression of appreciation of the gift of his Christmas spirit to the community.

That’s what it’s all about.

“There’s nothing like seeing a kid’s face pressed up against the window of a car, looking in awe at the house,” Bill says dreamily. “Or watching the stress drain from parents’ faces as their kids roam around our yard in wonder.”

People love the Riverhead Christmas house, as he calls it. He’s gotten plenty of notes and drawings from kids over the years saying thank you for “the Christmas house.” He laminates them and hangs up. He feels bad for the children he knows are disappointed by the darkness there this year. But then he brightens, “Wait’ll next year,” he says. I could hear the twinkle in his voice, and could picture him in his red flannel suit, waving and smiling.

We wish you a Merry Christmas, Bill and Sharon Doonan, from all of us at The News-Review and all over Riverhead. Thank you for your effervescent spirit and good humor.

And to that anonymous caller: Thanks for the gift. I wanted to write a Christmas column, but until your message, I was stumped.

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