Don Henschel: Keeping the Fantasy of Lights Tradition Alive

Don Henschel's handiwork is everywhere when the Midwestern State University-Burns Fantasy of Lights displays are spread across the front lawn at MSU's Hardin Administration Building. He is the man responsible for the Three Little Pigs, Cinderella, the Jolly Roger pirate ship with Peter Pan, the Dickens' Christmas Carol House, and Santa's Toy Shop, and he has worked on many of the original Burns displays through the years to keep them in working order.

Henschel's newest commissioned work is a carousel of nutcrackers that reflect North Texas occupations -- a policeman, fireman, nurse, oil field worker, cowboy, and aviator turn in circles to the sounds of "The Nutcracker Suite." "They may be a stretch as far as nutcrackers go, but they were a lot of fun to make and they tie into the people we know in the area," Henschel said.

Henschel, retired professor of theatre, came to MSU in 1970, four years before the lights came to the campus in 1974. He was a natural to help with the displays because of his experience in theater sets and lighting. He began bidding on jobs related to the lights, and in 1984, built his first display, the Three Little Pigs.

Henschel credits the late Jan Thacker, the first president of the MSU-Burns Fantasy of Lights Committee, and her love of Christmas for taking the first steps to building the display into what it is today. "It takes a combination of professional, artistic, educational, and philanthropic support to keep this going, and she started that," Henschel said. "It's one of the things that pulls this town together." One example of that civic cooperation is the Christmas Carol House, funded by a gift from United Food Stores. Now, businesses or individuals can adopt displays and contribute to their maintenance.

The variety of the animated, lighted displays to Henschel is "wonderfully weird." Through the years, he has worked on all the displays -- repairing, retouching repainting -- anything to keep them operating. "He's played a significant part in the refurbishment of all the displays," said Fantasy of Lights Coordinator Randy Canivel. "He's always been willing to help us out."

Henschel recalled the year that Humpty Dumpty fell off the truck at Southwest Parkway and Taft on its way from the warehouse to MSU. Two maintenance men came to him with their hands full of pieces. "It had just exploded, broke into pieces, and we didn't know if we would be able to put it back together again." Henschel said. But he and a crew of workers did put Humpty Dumpty back together. Inside the papier-mache Humpty, they found newspapers from 1952.

As the unofficial caretaker of the displays, Henschel understands the importance of each, from Flipper to the covered wagon to the fairy tales, and knows that the Fantasy of Lights would not be the same to many in the community if even one was missing. "I love to walk around and hear the little kids go 'oohh and aahh,' " Henschel said. He understands the fascination the lights hold for many adults also. "I was used to building sets for a play that would be gone in four days. But these have to last. Even if one seems like it's irreparable, you have to fix it. You can't take it away because people love all these so much. You can't mention any one of them without someone saying, 'That's my favorite.' There's nothing like this," Henschel said.
To read more about the MSU-Burns Fantasy of Lights, visit www.msuburnsfantasyoflights.com.