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Woster: The man behind Chamberlain's Christmas magic

Jerry grew up no stranger to hard work, and I don’t think he ever expected to be handed anything in his life. I knew he could weld like a champ.

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One of the simple joys of living in my hometown during the Christmas season is being able to drive down Main Street any old time and enjoy the holiday art created by my cousin.

That cousin is Jerry Kistler. He’s a year older. We grew up a couple of miles apart on family farms out northeast of Reliance. For the past several years, he has produced what you might call Christmas ornaments for the city of Chamberlain to display on the main drag.

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Jerry Kistler talks about the angel decoration he made that is on display in Chamberlain for the holiday season. (Matt Gade / Republic)

What’s so special about that, you might ask? Most towns in South Dakota put up holiday displays. Yes, they do. Nancy and I lived for many years in Pierre. I always liked the way the city decorated for the holidays, and the annual Christmas as the Capitol display of nearly 100 brightly lit and cleverly decorated trees is a wonderful thing.

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And some neighborhoods in the capital city also did eye-catching decorations. One I enjoyed used candy canes of all sizes and shapes, and most of the houses for several blocks integrated the canes in their Christmas displays. Long ago, when we lived in Sioux Falls, a neighborhood over on the east side of the city used hand-crafted churches on most of the lawns. The churches had lights that glowed through the windows and doors. It was worth a drive over that way to see.

Call me biased, but I think my hometown does it best. They have brightly lit snowflake designs on the lamp posts and many of the homes throughout town have attractive, sometimes one-of-a-kind, outdoor displays. In addition to that, my cousin has his “ornaments’’ on display on downtown street corners.

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The candle decoration Jerry Kistler made on display in Chamberlain for the holiday season. (Matt Gade / Republic)

I call them ornaments in a joking way. Like other ornaments, they are figures of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, candles, angels and reindeer. The thing about these ornaments is, they are huge - Christmas sculptures done on a grand scale. Jerry uses his skill as a welder and self-taught tinkerer to put the things together. When he is finished, they look marvelous. They are unique to this river city, and they’ve garnered a fair amount of public attention in recent years. So has Jerry, who says he looks at a picture and kind of eyeballs how the finished product should be.

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The Santa decoration Jerry Kistler made on display in Chamberlain for the holiday season. (Matt Gade / Republic)

I saw this quote somewhere by Chamberlain’s former city engineer, Greg Powell. “As far as his skill, I don’t think there’s anyone in this area who can weld, design and create something like he does. He’s built so much stuff that will last well beyond his and my lifetime.’’

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The Mitchell Republic, always my hometown newspaper, did a neat story about Jerry and the Christmas spirit a year ago. I read the story and passed a link around to my brothers and sisters. They all replied with gushing praise for the cousin my little sister calls “Saint Jerome.’’ She calls him that partly because he and his wife, Lorna, were always so good to our mother for so many years as she lived alone after our dad died.

But I like to think she also calls him that because if ordinary people could become saints, Jerry might be a candidate. He grew up no stranger to hard work, and I don’t think he ever expected to be handed anything in his life. I knew he could weld like a champ. I couldn’t weld a couple of lengths of angle iron together if my life depended on it. He could do it blindfolded.

I didn’t know he had such a creative streak. That sort of emerged seven or eight years ago when a community group asked if he could make a Christmas tree. He did, and the rest is on display downtown.

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The Christmas tree decoration Jerry Kistler made on display in Chamberlain for the holiday season. (Matt Gade / Republic)

He scoffs good-naturedly at the notion that it’s art. “Farmer’s art, maybe,’’ he told one publication. In another story, he said he isn’t sure how he puts the sculptures together. “I just do it,’’ he said, which is kind of how farm people do a lot of things.

I’ve never asked him to explain the details of his creations. I don’t ask magicians how they do their tricks, either. I just enjoy the magic.

What to read next
A regular opinion piece by columnist Terry Woster
"My best advice as a faith leader is to seek out where you can find the Spirit, God’s active presence in the world, still at work. This can be in the talented medical staff taking care of your loved one; this could be in the network of friends who rally to your side. The Spirit is there, at work, somewhere."
A regular column from Terry Woster
A regular opinion piece from columnist Terry Woster.