Twenty-five years ago, Bill Fitzpatrick had a vision to turn Ladysmith’s newly revitalized downtown core into a winter wonderland of sparkling lights and colour.
Fitzpatrick initiated the Festival of Lights in 1987, and last week, he was honoured with Ladysmith council’s first Community Legacy Award for making Ladysmith a better place.
Mayor Rob Hutchins presented the award Dec. 5 during council’s inaugural reception at the Waterfront Art Gallery.
“For the first time, council has decided to take this time to recognize a significant contribution to our community,” he said. “Bill has truly created a legacy for all of us.”
In the mid-1980s, the community went through a transformation, and the first part of that transformation was a revitalization of the downtown core, explained Hutchins.
“It took a lot of leadership and determination to make that happen, and it actually transformed our community,” he said. “It led to our community being one of the fastest-growing communities in British Columbia a few years later in the early 1990s.”
But, last week, Fitzpatrick wasn’t being honoured for chairing the downtown revitalization — which in itself is a legacy for the community, noted Hutchins.
And he wasn’t receiving the award because he was one of the first people to put money into Hutchins’s first campaign, which the mayor jokingly also described as a legacy.
No, Fitzpatrick was being recognized for an idea he came up with 25 years ago — and the drive and determination he had to see it through.
“The idea was to dress up this beautiful town for the Christmas season,” said Hutchins. “The idea was each building, newly revitalized, would have a unique colour, so it was going to be like a necklace going down First Avenue.”
Fitzpatrick first approached the chamber of commerce about his idea for a Festival of Lights, and people started coming on board, explained Hutchins.
“Bill had the idea, and he took it forward,” he said. “Not only did he have the idea, and people captured that idea and said ‘let’s make it happen,’ but he drove it. Now, if you don’t know Bill, he’s like a pitbull — a lot of tenacity, and he never lets go. Money wasn’t really forthcoming at the time; the town was in the middle of a recession, and it was a very difficult challenge. But people like Chuck Perrin came forward, and they said ‘we’re going to make this happen,’ and it happened. Now it was a beautiful, beautiful idea, and it grew year after year.”
Fitzpatrick was very thankful, and he seemed thrilled with his award, a large framed painting of Ladysmith’s downtown during the Festival of Lights.
“First of all, I would start out by thanking my nine volunteers that I started out with,” he said. “And now I can thank the thousands of volunteers over the years that have dedicated themselves, their time and money to make the festival what it is today.”
Fitzpatrick thanked Duck Paterson for his “dulcet tones every year,” and he thanked the mayor and council for their generosity “at long last.”
“The first council looked at me and said ‘who the hell is he and what part of Mars did he fall from?’ but things have changed,” he said.
Alex Stuart was the town’s mayor when Fitzpatrick started the Festival of Lights, which now includes more than 200,000 lights in the downtown core and beyond.
“Bill probably was and still is one of the most tenacious persons I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know,” said Stuart. “Getting the merchants to buy into downtown revitalization, it took people like Bill and many others who joined him in his vision to step up and say ‘this is worth doing, we have to make it worthwhile,’ and if it wasn’t for people like him driving it every day and bringing it to fruition to get that first festival up and running and people like Duck who are trojans each and every year … Ladysmith wouldn’t have been given the opportunity of becoming what it is today.”