The evening served as a model of cooperation between the city and university as each institution welcomed the leader of the other for their respective events.
Dapper JSU students crowded into the president’s home for a reception and then the official “JSU in Lights” ceremony sponsored by President William Meehan and his wife Beth, along with the Student Government Association. Mayor Johnny Smith, a former JSU math professor, led the countdown for the grand switch-on.
In addition to traditional Christmas lights, said Meehan, the university also lights a set of stars shining from atop Houston Cole Library to honor veterans. After shining for Veterans Day weekend they are shut off and relit for the annual ceremony.
As part of the festivities, the SGA sponsored a toy drive to benefit the Jacksonville Christian Outreach Center’s Toyland program, something the group has done for at least six years, said president Jason Sumner. The drive usually generates about three pickup trucks full of toys for the center, Meehan said.
“We want to give back to the children and families in our area that are less fortunate and not be able to have Christmas,” Sumner said.” So for our students, this is an opportunity to give back and to show also we’re expressing our thankfulness for what we have.”
The city has been hosting the annual event since the early 1990s, said Councilwoman Sandra Sudduth, chair of the event. JSU began hosting its lighting ceremony 12 years ago, shortly after Meehan took over as president of the university, and eventually the two events began functioning to complement one another.
Sudduth said the city’s lighting ceremony started out as a sparse event that has grown over the years. On Monday, the crowd filling almost half the darkened square heard Christmas performances from the Kitty Stone Singers and the school’s beginning band students. When a city employee finally flipped the switch, the entire square was illuminated at once—16 snowflakes adorned the streetlights around the square, and Christmas-light trees sprung up among the crowd.
After leading the city’s countdown to its Christmas kickoff, Meehan said that Jacksonville’s community and government have been quite gracious to the university, something he told the students gathered at his own ceremony earlier in the evening: “One of the many blessings we have as an institution is we live in a great city,” he said. “I get to travel all over the country and I see students who aren’t as blessed to live in a great city with a great council and great mayor that support the institution that is their home.”
As the students awaited the countdown, Mayor Smith wished the students a happy holiday season.
“Get back here safe, and bring back all that money you get for Christmas and spend it here in town,” he laughed. “Thank you all for what you do to make Jacksonville a different place. Jacksonville would not be what it is without this university.”