Are We There Yet? | Among the Elm Boulevard treetops, a star is born

Are We There Yet? | Among the Elm Boulevard treetops, a star is born

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Scott Pickard has always been a climber — and a bit of an adventurer.

Growing up in Dallas, Pickard and his buddies liked to climb trees, railroad bridges and anything else they could find, including water towers.

Yes, water towers. Often it was a dare, and he was never afraid of heights, so ...

"You'd get a spectacular view. It's just the thrill of not only the climb but being in a spot that you're not supposed to be," said Pickard, a retired Champaign engineer and former director of the UI Research Park's EnterpriseWorks.

"I don't recommend that widely to anybody," he added. "That was back in the days when your parents didn't really know where you were, unlike today."

Pickard never lost his love of climbing. So when he found himself with idle time during a two-week vacation in 2002, just before Christmas, he got an idea.

As he was putting up Christmas lights, he looked up at the 70-foot hemlock tree outside the family's home on Elm Boulevard and thought: I could put a star up there.

He decided to surprise his wife, Karen, a teacher, and their kids, who were still in school before holiday break.

"I was home alone, which is always dangerous," he said.

He figured he would just start climbing, and if he ran into trouble, he'd drop his plan.

So he found a star at Lowe's, laid out 200 feet of extension cord and set up a ladder so he could reach the first branch about 20 feet off the ground. He fashioned a harness to carry the star around his neck and attached the electrical cord to his belt so he could pull it up as he climbed.

It was cold and snowy, and he had to navigate each branch carefully. Once he was near the top, and the branches were swaying in the breeze, he secured the star to the trunk, plugged in the cord and climbed down.

He waited until his wife and kids came home, then pulled them outside after dark for the big reveal.

They were "flabbergasted," he said. Karen Pickard asked how he got it up there and then said, "You climbed that tree, didn't you?"

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After the holidays, neighbors asked if he was going to put it up again.

So for 16 years, Pickard, now 69, has continued the tradition.

"I get a kick out of it," he said. "It's sort of my thing, when it comes to decorating the house and enjoying the holiday season."

The stars have gotten a little bigger over the years. The current version, the fifth, is a 2-by-2-foot LED star that is "spectacular," Pickard said. "The minute you turn on the block, you can see it."

There have been incidents, including a few slips over the years, but no falls (knock on wood).

When it's snowy, he makes sure to brush the snow off each limb before taking a step, and "I always make sure that one hand is always holding on to something. No false moves."

He can make the climb in 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the weather. The tree's branch structure makes it a fairly easy climb for anyone with experience, he said.

Pickard leaves the star and the last extension cord in the tree year-round, tied securely to a branch, so he doesn't have to lug them up and down each year. But wind and rain take a toll, and it seems squirrels enjoy nibbling on the wires.

"I'd say every three years I have to get a new one," he said.

This year, he had to go up twice. He went up to check it out on a Friday in early December, in part to prove to contractors Rob Sheehan and Matt Meyers, who were working on a bathroom at the house, that he could actually do it. They took lots of pictures.

The star was slightly damaged but still worked. It lit up as scheduled the first night, but by Saturday night — nothing. So Pickard had to go buy the new one.

He tested that one before he went back up on Sunday.

"I've done this so many times that for me it's not that big a deal," he said.

Watch Pickard make the climb below:

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Still, it was pretty windy that day, and the top of a tree isn't the best place to be under those conditions. The branches get pretty small way up there.

"He was actually swaying back and forth," Karen Pickard said. "I was yelling from the ground, 'Hold on, hold on!'

"I never take my eyes off him. I just keep backing up on the lawn so I keep him in view the whole time. I've got my cellphone, with 911 on speed dial."

One year, with her son standing nearby, she muttered, "Your father could kill himself."

He answered, "Mom, he'd never die, look at all the branches he'd hit on the way down."

"That's kind of how they feel about their father — he will survive anything," she said. "That's not the only crazy thing he does."

One day, he decided to ride his bike up to Chicago, along Illinois 1. Karen Pickard met him up there to drive him back.

"He jumped out of a parachute one Sunday afternoon after taking a course at the Armory for one hour," she said.

And there was the time he asked her to drive to the Grand Canyon for the weekend. She declined, so he went to Carbondale and picked up her brother, drove all night to Arizona, slept for a few hours, hiked down the canyon and back up, jumped in the car and made it back to work at Daily and Associates the following Monday afternoon.

"Now he's investigating drones," she said.

How long will Scott Pickard continue his treetop star tradition?

"My kids ask me that all the time," he said. "I'll be doing this as long as I can."

Longtime family friend Ellen Harms, who lives just west of the Pickards, calls it her "star in the east."

Harms said neighbors on Elm are big on tradition, with a Fourth of July parade, Easter-egg hunts, cider and donuts in the fall and a Christmas house walk going on 35 years, also started by the Pickards.

The Star on the Boulevard is another, Harms said — though she admits holding her breath each time he goes up the tree.

"I love standing on my front porch and seeing that bright star glowing over my friend's house, glowing over this wonderful neighborhood we've been lucky enough to call home for 36 Christmases," Harms said.

Julie Wurth writes a column about kids and family life and covers the UI for News-Gazette Media. Contact her at 217-351-5226, or on Twitter (@jawurth). Older versions of this column are available at

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