Even with rain and powerful wind gusts, the opening night attendance at the 30th anniversary of Dillsboro’s Lights and Luminaries festival was strong, organizers say, drawing in an estimated crowd of more than 700 people for Western Carolina University Night.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the number of visitors who came despite the rain,” said John Miele, co-owner of the Golden Carp and a member of the Dillsboro/WCU Partnership Committee that spearheaded the event. “I love doing WCU Night. It’s a thrill to make students aware of what’s here.”
While it is difficult to track attendance at an outdoor event with multiple entries and exits, students organizing the event in a public relations campaigns class taught by Betty Farmer, WCU professor of communication, used several measures to arrive at the crowd size estimate.
The main tool used to count attendance was getting WCU faculty, staff, and students to swipe their CatCards on iPods with the event staff. “We had 711 unique swipes,” Farmer said.
Additionally, WCU and the Cullowhee United Methodist Church sponsored shuttles to and from the event. Those working at Bradley’s General Store noticed when new visitors were carted to and from downtown. “They kept coming in large groups. We knew when the vans came and went based on the rush of people we received,” said Rose Anne Johnson, owner of Bradley’s.
There were also several hundred children at the event, so Farmer thinks the attendance figure is probably closer to 1,000.
The students, faculty, staff and community members who braved the elements were rewarded with free family entertainment and hospitality from the Dillsboro merchants.
One of the highlights of the evening was a sing-along with elementary students from Cullowhee Valley School, under the direction of music teacher Katee Johnson and led by Susan Belcher, accomplished singer and wife of WCU Chancellor David Belcher.
“These children made my Christmas,” said Mrs. Belcher. “Joy, hope, promise…they embody Christmas.”
The event exemplifies an important relationship WCU has with the community. “The university and the community are one entity. It’s better when both can work together,” Mrs. Belcher said.
Despite having to move indoors to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad warehouse because of the rain, numerous acts performed for WCU Night, including the WCU Holiday Dancers, Broadway Cat Singers, WCU Horn Choir, The Trantham Family Band and the WCU Inspirational Choir.
An additional act that generated some buzz was the WCU Shades of Purple Barber Shop Quartet, but not just for their singing. Daniel Mull, one of the members of the group, proposed to his girlfriend, Candace Renee Rhoades, during the group’s performance at the Jarrett House.
Mull, a senior music education major, said he chose the date and the Jarrett House as the site because the luminaries festival had become a tradition and the Jarrett House was one of the couple’s favorite places to eat. Mull’s fraternity brothers from Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia also serenaded Rhoades during the performance. Rhoades, whom Mull characterized as “completely oblivious” to the plan, said yes to the marriage proposal.
On top of the musical entertainment, iceless ice-skating was made available through a sponsorship by the A.K. Hinds University Center.
WCU students, faculty, and staff had the opportunity to enter into a free drawing to win more than $500 in gift certificates from Dillsboro merchants. The drawing took place at the end of the night, and Santa Claus called and greeted the winner with the good news.
Elizabeth Simpson, a math/pre-med major from Lexington, received the call. “I heard about the event last year,” Simpson said. “I really enjoyed going in all the shops and being able to paint an ornament at Claymates and wanted to do it again this year.”
Saturday night’s attendance and sales also were strong, according to Lisa Potts, co-president of the Dillsboro Merchants Association. “They were on par or better than last year, and that was great,” Potts said.
The festival continues this weekend and concludes with the grand finale, a fireworks show sponsored by the Jackson County Parks and Recreation Center, on Saturday, Dec. 14.
For more information,, visit the Dillsboro Lights and Luminaries Facebook page at:https://www.facebook.com/DillsboroLuminaries.