By Starrla Cray
NEW GERMANY, MN Gerald “Beans” Roepke doesn’t need to go to New York to see city lights on Broadway.
Since he was 18 years old, he’s been part of the New Germany Christmas decorating crew, stringing lights on Broadway Street and beyond.
“This is my 52nd year,” Roepke said. “I’ve never missed a year putting them up or taking them down.”
It all started when Roepke was a senior at Norwood Young America High School.
“I was dating Victor Kohl’s daughter, Karen,” Roepke said. “Victor owned a hardware store in town.”
As a business owner in New Germany’s Commercial Club, Victor was part of the decorating committee, and asked for Roepke’s help.
“I was the young guy in the group,” Roepke recalled.
As such, he was selected to stand on top of the local egg truck, which they used to reach the street posts.
“It used to take longer in those days,” Roepke said. “Of course, we didn’t have all this good equipment.”
The men would work three to four evenings, wrapping lights in green Christmas tree garland, and securing a wreath in the center of each strand.
Roepke said it looked beautiful, even in the daytime, but it was also quite labor intensive.
“We didn’t have automatic timers, either,” he added. “There was a fellow named Loren Lemke who would plug in every string of lights at 5 o’clock each night. Then, at 10 o’clock every night, he’d pull the plugs.”
An automatic timer, which switches all lights on simultaneously from the fire station, was purchased in 1968.
With equipment improvements, the crew is now able to put up all the decorations in one afternoon.
“We used to do it the week of Thanksgiving, but for the past nine or 10 years, we’ve been doing it the Saturday before,” Roepke said.
This year, however, the lights took a little longer, because a hook was missing from one of the posts.
“We got a new hook and came back on Sunday to finish up,” Roepke said.
Roepke’s son, Eric, nearly missed the setup this year because of a commitment in St. Cloud on Saturday.
“I was kidding with him, and said we purposely didn’t finish until Sunday, so that he could still help,” Roepke said.
A community effort
Eric has been assisting with the lights for more than 20 seasons.
“He’s got a good record going, too,” Roepke said. “I kind of handed the reigns to him.”
As an electrician, Eric is also able to resolve any electrical issues that arise.
In addition to Roepke and his son, some of the other New Germany residents who enjoy helping include Pete Pederson, Mark Unglaub, Kevin Horstman, Steve VanLith, Kevin Pawelk, Bruce Fillbrandt, Lowell Latzig, and Paul Theisen.
“It’s a good time,” Roepke said, explaining that after the job is done, the group usually goes to a local business for refreshments. “It’s a chance to warm up and talk it over how it went and what could have gone better.”
Roepke said there are sometimes small obstacles, but overall, decorating goes very smoothly.
“Everybody has their little job,” he said, adding that he and Pederson are in charge of the cable that hoists the decorations, and three other guys typically replace burned out bulbs.
“Our trademark is the lights going across the street, because not too many cities do that anymore,” Roepke said.
Roepke’s life has had many busy seasons, but he always makes time for the annual decorating.
After high school graduation, he took industrial arts classes for two years in St. Cloud, before moving into the plumbing and heating industry.
Gerald and Karen got married in 1963. Four years later, Gerald began working at the hardware store with his father-in-law, which also provided plumbing and heating services.
“The majority of the work I did was in a five-mile radius,” Roepke said. “I got to know the people really well.”
The Roepke family purchased the hardware store in 1980, and operated it for about 20 years.
“I still do the plumbing and heating,” Roepke said. “Now that I’ve cut back, I have more time to visit and have a cup of coffee with customers.”
Roepke has many friends in the community. He was on the fire department for 29 years, has held various offices at St. Mark Lutheran Church, and is part of New Germany’s 125th anniversary committee, the Commercial Club, and the board of directors for McLeod Cooperative Power.
According to Roepke, New Germany’s Christmas decorating is similar to other community activities, in that it is a team effort.
“No matter what it is, we can do it together,” he said. “Together, we can make it happen.”