Hilltop tree is holiday beacon for all

While Ashland boasts many holiday traditions, one longtime favorite is the tall tree above the boulevard whose twinkling lights can be seen from most parts of the city after Thanksgiving and through the holiday season.

For more than 40 years, Bill and Shirley Patton have been stringing Christmas lights on their 100-foot Ponderosa pine tree for all of Ashland to enjoy. Though most people know very little about the tree, its owners are quite active in the community.

The Pattons have been involved with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for decades. Shirley joined the acting company in 1958 and performed for 30 seasons. Bill holds the position of executive director emeritus, and retired after 42 years as the general manager.

He started with the festival as a lighting technician in 1947. Shirley points to Bill's lifelong fascination with lights and climbing. About — or 4 years after they moved into the house, Bill got the idea about climbing the tree and decorating it with Christmas lights. "I think he likes climbing," Shirley says.

When their three children were young, Bill and the boys would often climb the tree to "ride" it in the wind. However, there was a family rule that no one could climb the tree without someone else at home. Eight years ago, when Bill was nearly 70, he broke that rule.

Shirley explains, "Bill was climbing the tree with all the lights wrapped around his shoulders, and it threw him off balance." Bill adds, "I dropped about 25 to 50 feet before I managed to grab hold of some branches." While the fall could have been much worse, he says it banged him up pretty bad. "I'm still suffering from that."

Since then, as a Christmas present to Shirley, Bill hires Upper Limb-It, a local tree service owned by Tom Myer to hang the lights.

"They're great," Shirley says. "Tom calls the trees his 'branch office.' I remember the first time they came; they had all of this safety equipment. Bill would just scamper up the tree with nothing."

The couple has many fond memories of the tree. When they were building the house, Shirley says, a contractor suggested they get rid of the tree. It was too close to the house, and too big.

"And it is a bigger tree now," Bill laughs, "than it was in 1947."

The tree has been home and playground to wildlife as well. The Pattons recall one day when Shirley's mother saw a shadow from the bedroom window near the tree. She looked closer and there was bear peering into the house.

Shirley says, "the bear turned and walked up the pine tree just like he was riding an escalator."

This holiday season, squirrels chewed through the lights. The employee from Upper-Limb-It who hung the lights noticed that only two strings were actually showing.

"It didn't look like a Christmas tree at all," says Bill. The tree service repaired the lights as soon as they could, and the tree now brightens the hillside above Ashland once again. The couple is happy the lights have meaning for many people in town.

"The tree has sort of become an icon," Bill says.

Shirley recalls that on trips home from visits to Medford, their children would eagerly keep lookout for the lighted tree. "That's how we'd know we were close to home."

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