ITHACA, NY – Every year since 1965, the 14-story East and West towers of Ithaca College have been host to a New Year’s tradition in Ithaca.

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Windows in each tower are strategically lit up so as to display the numbers marking the new year. This year, of course, we’ll be seeing a big one-six. The display, says Facilities Services Residential Supervisor Matthew Walters, can be seen from as far off as 20 miles.

The college recently released a short video offering a glimpse behind the scenes, and further invited the Voice and other media outlets to learn more about it.

A Little History

Petrus Van de Velde was the assistant superintendent current position back in 1965, when the towers construction was finished. He came up with the idea of lighting up the towers, although in the first year the images displayed were a Christmas tree and a cross.

The college quickly decided it wanted to offer a more inclusive message with this spectacle, and so by the next year it was changed to the new year’s numbers.

The tradition has been recurrent every year since, except for a single year in the early 70s when it had to be halted due to an energy crisis.

The Process

The process is actually pretty simple. Walters identifies the rooms that need to be lit and Residence Life staff then informs the students that their rooms will be used. Then two facilities staff members mount lights in the windows of those rooms and link them to a switch outside the room.

Students, he said, generally don’t mind the small invasion of privacy. “The students get a kick out of having their room used,” Walters said. “They can identify, ‘Oh, that’s 1004, I live there.’ They can tell their friends or point them to the Youtube video.”

Matthew Walters (right) and Jim Brenchley, who are responsible for lighting the towers.

The process is pretty much down to a science at this point – there’s a “compendium” (okay, technically it’s just a black 3-ring binder) of sorts that lays out the specific configurations of lights for each room. Once the lights are installed, they’re all connected to a single switch on each floor.

In the past, Walters said, it would’ve taken up to five people per floor as people would have to actually enter each room to turn on each light. Now it takes at most one person per floor.

Despite the foolproofing, the team did run into one small fluke a few years ago. New card-activated locks had been installed that year, and it wasn’t realized until the last minute that the volunteers wouldn’t be able to actually reach their assigned switch.

This resulted in the supervisor having to dash up the strairs, floor to floor, to grant access. “By the time he got to me up on the 12th floor, I thought he was going over,” said Facilities Attendent Jim Brenchley.

This creating a staggered lighting of the tower instead of a simultaneous one. “It actually looked good, though. It almost looked like we knew what we were doing,” Brenchley said.

A family tradition, too

The process is simple enough that several staff members invite their families and their children to be a part of the tradition, giving them the chance to flip the switch and illuminate a floor’s worth of lights.

“My daughter- she’s eight now – when she was three I said, ‘Okay, when you hear ‘now,’ you’ve gotta flip the switch.’ I figure if a three year old can do it, we all can do it,” said Brenchley.

Taking part in the lighting of the tower can be a source of pride for family members of all ages, Brenchley said. “You take pride in it. You see it and you say, ‘Hey, I put those lights up.” As simple as it is, it’s something a lot of people see.”

With 50 years now behind it, there’s no indication that this tradition is going anywhere. “I hope the tradition continues, because I know there are a lot of people in the community looking forward to it,” Walters said.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.