It started out as an odds-defying attempt to put Airdrie on the map. Twenty four years later, the Airdrie Festival of Lights is one of the city’s most popular annual events.
“Airdrie was a bedroom community of Calgary and the only thing people would talk about was the hockey arena,” recalls Stan Softley, who in 1995 was an Airdrie alderman. “I felt we needed an identity.”
Inspiration came to Softley while visiting Salt Lake City. “The community put on a lights festival in their park – the cars would drive in and drive around,” he says. “I looked around Airdrie and thought, could we do this?”
Softley contacted the company that made the lights and ordered some for Airdrie (to the tune of about $300,000, he recalls), and began enlisting his colleagues on council and in the community. “It’s the way Stan likes to operate – it got sprung on me,” laughs one-time fellow alderman Rey Rawlins. “He said he wanted to do this Festival of Lights thing, and he had the lights coming. The guy put himself on the line for it.”
John Whitrick came into the event in part, he says, due to his experience founding and running Airdrie’s Chautauqua summer festival.
“Stan said, ‘How would you like to be part of a winter festival?’” recalls Whitrick. “He was the one [who] showed me a drawing showing the park showing the arches – it wasn’t too badly thrown together and it got me going. He took a gamble and I think it paid off.”
Like his colleagues, Whitrick, who worked for Nova at the time, devoted weekends and evenings to setting up that ﬁrst year and recalls how late in the day the ﬁnal planning came together. “It was October when we decided to do this – so that gave us two months to put it together,” he says. “In a way, it was a little bit like having the deer-in-the-headlights feeling. We didn’t have much chance to smell the roses; we were going full time.”
Adds Rawlins: “[Stan] picked one of the worst winters to start it and one of the coldest. There was probably skepticism on many people’s part. But Stan’s enthusiasm got to the rest of us!”
Softley recalls when the truck from South Carolina bearing the lights arrived in Airdrie. “The day we were going to unload the truck, it was -20 [degrees] and the wind was blowing and the snow was blowing – and we didn’t have that many people out to help,” he says. “The driver [from South Carolina] said he’d never seen such cold.”
Peter Pape was another early recruit. “I was allocated by the Chamber of Commerce to work on the festival, and I thought it was an absolutely great thing,” Pape says. “We struggled with manpower, with debt load – but if it wasn’t for the hard work of the people [who] were originally involved, it probably would have gone under. But they were determined to not let that happen.
“The ﬁrst year,” Pape adds, “we got all the decorations and laid them on the ground [in position]. That night, it snowed 22 centimetres and buried everything.”
Ever resourceful, they quickly developed a foolproof system for ﬁnding the buried lights. “When you walked on the snow and heard the crunch of a bulb breaking, you knew it was the lights,” Softley says.
Alan Tennant, then a local Realtor (and today CEO of the Calgary Real Estate Board), started volunteering in 1999 and later took over from Softley as president of the non-proﬁt Airdrie Festival of Lights Society.
At the time Tennant joined, a developer had purchased the parking lot used for the festival. “That property … was critically needed for parking,” he says. “The reason I got involved was I didn’t think [people] were concerned enough and should be going to city council … relocating the festival was not an option. I was part of the original Nose Creek Foundation that had raised money to put a park on that land, and I thought the festival was a perfect marriage.”
Softley, now 70 and living in Provo, Utah, is happy, “It’s done what I hope it would do – it’s made people proud.”
Softley is writing a book about his time in Airdrie, including the origin of the Festival of Lights, and says that he’s on the hunt for photos and people’s recollections about its early days. If you can help, please e-mail stan@ﬂagsandstuff.com or write 276 N. University Ave., Provo, Utah, 84601-2821.
Read the full story and more memories from the original directors online at airdrielife.com