For 41 years, my regular route home at night has been up the W or the Gap (Roberts Mill to newcomers). But when the days shorten and turn out the lights on my commute, I change my route…and for good reason. Because starting just before Thanksgiving, as you crest the inky-black final curve up the front of the mountain, what appears to be a dim glow becomes a bright light, and then — full-on Christmas!
For the last 15 years, the signal to Signal that the holidays are upon us is the Santa Express “pulling into” its spotlighted station at the intersection of Signal Mountain Boulevard and Taft Highway. The wooden train has put stars in the eyes of thousands of children who have climbed onboard, as well as their parents and grandparents who have snapped countless holiday photos. The train is the brainchild of Stan Crewe and his buddy Glenn Showalter. Stan was a DuPont engineer and Glenn an artist. Both were Northern transplants with a sense of fun, passion for their adopted home town, and pay-it-forward mentality. A lot has been written and said about the nostalgic train’s holiday cheer and the “gee whiz” logistics required to move that train into place every holiday season.
But the real story to me isn’t about a train or even Christmas. It’s a story about a loyal friendship, of giving back, of spending your talent on behalf of neighbors, of stewarding today’s time with a better tomorrow in mind, and of simple acts that add up to a lifetime of legacy.
Whenever Glenn talks about his buddy Stan, he is either smiling or near tears. Glenn recounted how Stan and his wife Nanci were driving up Signal one Christmas from downtown Chattanooga “where everything was bright and shiny.” In contrast, Stan said, “Signal Mountain has no decorations, no lights, no wreaths. We need something!” The “something” the mechanically gifted Stan dreamed up took shape over a number of years.
“When he first spoke to me about it, I was envisioning a model train,” Glenn said. “I was thrilled when he wanted to go bigger!’’ For five years (yes, years), the two friends worked on the train every Friday in Stan’s workshop. “We spent many, many hours designing, building, sanding and painting. Stan wouldn’t let me use any of his big saws or sharp tools because he didn’t want to have to get extra insurance!”
After the years of prep (and no major injuries for Glenn), Signal’s Santa Express debuted in 2003 in little James Park. It was such a hit, Stan and Glenn built additional cars in subsequent years as the project morphed from train to beloved tradition. That wasn’t the first or last expression of Signal devotion by the duo. In the 1960s, Stan conceived and built the first official “Welcome to Signal Mountain” sign that still stands guard today. He co-founded the Signal Mountain Playhouse and built its first stage, which now sits on a street named Stan Crewe Way. Glenn has done everything from paint sets to direct at the Playhouse and is co-author/illustrator of an amazingly detailed coloring book depicting the history and beauty of Signal. Pure labors of love.
And then we lost Stan.
After his passing in 2007, friends and family moved heaven and earth to make sure the Express was proudly in place that Christmas. But the next year, it was more than could be accomplished. We, as a community, felt the loss of the man and the tradition he founded.
The train stored outside for several years, deteriorated. In 2012, Signal Mountain Lions Club member Phil Johnson issued a challenge to his club to restore the Santa Express. A number of Lions met in former Mayor Dick Gee’s garage to survey the “train wreck,’’ agreeing to take it on as an annual project. So, in addition to the thousands of barbeques, millions of fireworks, car giveaways and more for their many projects, those Lions and committee chair Ken Abel also work all year to maintain, repair and enhance Stan and Glenn’s exact original design, including the type of toys filling the train cars. “We feature only old-time toys like books and wooden soldiers,” Glenn said with a smile. “We don’t want iPods or anything like that.” Many others have touched the project: Signal’s recreation department which helps transport the Express, the Signal Mountain Country Club that generously stores it and Stan’s kids David and Alison who have both helped fulfill their Dad’s vision. In so many ways, Stan’s train has become all of ours.
“I drive past the train all the time during the holidays because I love to see children sitting on it, ringing the bell, and parents taking pictures,” he added. “I get mail from people sending photos of their families enjoying the train. Stan would love that. It’s exactly what we set out to do.”
True friendship, giving back, spending talent on behalf of others, stewarding time with an eternal perspective, simple acts that lead to legacy — maybe this is a Christmas story after all. A reflection of THE Christmas story.