There are dreamers, and then there are doers. And every once in a while, along comes a guy who’s both.

Meet Joel Ross. Also known, in and around his hometown, as the man who just saved Christmas.

“I know my mother, my wife and my kids have all been really proud of me about it,” said Joel, 39. “So, it kind of makes you feel good.”

It all began a month or so ago when Joel and his wife, Lacee, were meandering around Lubec with their sons looking at Christmas lights. Peering out at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Bridge, which connects the U.S. mainland with Canada’s Campobello Island, Joel wondered aloud, “Why don’t we ever decorate the bridge?”

It was not a rhetorical question. And the more he asked it over the next few days – including a post on the community Facebook page that drew much attention – the more Joel heard the same answer.

“Everyone’s reply was, ‘No one’s ever thought of it,’” Joel recalled. “I was quite shocked.”

Maybe it was the pandemic-induced gloom that hung over this holiday season, just like it did the last. Or maybe it was the fact that nearby Campobello Island, where Lacee grew up, had never seemed so far away since COVID-19 began limiting travel over the 879-foot bridge named for the president who famously summered on the picturesque island.

All Joel knew was that “nobody’s ever thought of it before” wasn’t not a satisfactory answer. In fact, it was an invitation: As FDR himself once said, “Happiness … lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.”

Joel, who has his own small construction business, set to work. He contacted the Maine Department of Transportation, which shares oversight of the 60-year-old bridge with its counterpart in Canada. Transportation officials, upon reviewing the plan, gave him a green light.

He sat down with customs officials on both sides of the border. Go for it, they agreed.

Finally, he reached out to the U.S. Coast Guard, which maintains red and green navigational lights on the bridge for vessels traversing the Lubec Narrows below. More thumbs up.

Off Joel went to the Walmart Supercenter in Calais, where he plunked down $400 of his own money for some 2,000 feet of LED Christmas lights.

“I’m not a connoisseur of Christmas lights by any means, so I learned a lot,” he said. “I actually had to get a specific type of light in order to carry the current that far.”

Speaking of which, he also needed electricity. That would come from his own 5,600-watt, gasoline-powered generator.

Down to the bridge Joel went, the second week of December. For eight bone-chilling hours, he strung the lights along the bridge’s north side, clearly visible from Lubec’s nearby town center. Around that time, Sarah Craighead Dedmon, editor of the Machias Valley News Observer, caught wind of the story, and suddenly the holidays weren’t so glum after all.

A GoFundMe campaign sprung up to help cover Joel’s expenses. Donation buckets went out at Lyons IGA Market and McFadden’s Variety, where manager Mike McFadden went one better and told Joel to take whatever gas he needed for the generator from the store’s pump. No charge.

“We’re a small community that do what we need to do to help people out and bring Christmas cheer,” McFadden explained. “Joel come up with a wonderful idea, and he put a lot of legwork into it and stuff … so we told him we would help out and take the weight of the gas off” his shoulders.

So generous were the townsfolk that before long, they’d covered the $400-plus Joel already had shelled out – and then some. Back out he went to string more lights along the south side of the bridge – from that direction, the glow of Eastport several miles to the north provided the perfect backdrop to the holiday tableau.

In all, Joel estimates he spent 14 hours illuminating the bridge, with occasional help from customs officers who couldn’t just sit in their cozy border station and watch this guy jump-start Christmas all by himself. “I think they felt bad for me,” Joel said with a chuckle.

But putting up the lights, it turns out, was the easy part. Each day thereafter, Joel drove 8 miles from his home to the bridge just before sunset to fuel the generator and fire up the display, then returned at 10 p.m. to turn it all off. In all, the 16-mile round trips totaled more than 500 miles.

The original plan was to keep the lights on through New Year’s Day. But alas, midway through last week, the generator finally kicked the bucket.

“I haven’t had a chance to look at it,” said Joel, who’s now nursing a cold. “It might be the end of my generator – sitting there by the water in the cold, I don’t think it was very good for it.”

Ah, but it was worth it. For days, photos of the bridge sprouted on social media throughout the area. And Joel, much to his surprise, couldn’t go anywhere without being stopped by “five, six, seven, sometimes 10” people who just wanted to thank him for, as FDR himself put it all those years ago, the thrill of his creative effort.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Joel said. “I really wasn’t expecting this kind of approval or attention, but I’m really glad that people liked it. It makes you feel good to do something and have everyone enjoy it.”

At the same time, the lights provided moments for reflection. Joel dedicated the whole project to two women on Campobello who passed away over the last year – Sandra Phinney, his mother-in-law, and Debbie Anthony, the “really, really sweet” mother of a close friend.

Even now, as Lubec leads us into another dark winter, there’s talk of bringing the lights back next year. Joel said he’s game, although he wouldn’t mind a little help with the logistics. He’s also thinking about going solar next time – let Mother Nature pick up where his generator left off.

But there’s plenty of time for all that. All that matters right now is that on the far eastern edge of Maine, Christmas of 2021 will not be remembered for the isolation, yearning and, yes, tragic loss that leave us all so numb to the passage of time.

In tiny Lubec, it was the year the lights came on.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.