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A Christmas wonderland in Ponca
With over 100,000 Christmas lights, Ponca couple wins $50,000 prize

PONCA, Neb. -- When Gene Watchorn first began decorating his home for Christmas, the power company would call, asking if there was an electrical problem at his rural residence, northwest of Ponca.

"That was a long time ago," the 68-year-old semi-retired machinist explained, smiling. "Nowadays, they know that my electric bill will surge around the holidays."

Watchorn isn't kidding.

The home that he shares with Julie McDowell currently has more than 100,000 Christmas lights in the yard, on the trim of the house, on surrounding trees, as well as on a gazebo.

In addition, the couple has more than 90 inflatables on their property, around 30 reindeer on their roof, and more than 250 battery-operated Santas, Grinches and festively-adorned Mickey Mouses inside of their house. 

Pretty impressive, right? That's exactly what the producers of ABC's "The Great Christmas Light Fight," a reality competition television series in the hunt for America's best holiday display, thought.

The Watchorn home blew the judges away and the couple received $50,000 and a trophy for their effort on an episode that aired Nov. 26.

"It's usually the people with the fancy, synchronized light displays that win on TV," McDowell, 62, noted with a laugh. "We were shocked that ours was chosen to be the best."

McDowell was familiar with the seasonal "The Great Christmas Light Fight" TV series, which features celebrity designers like Sabrina Soto and Carter Oosterhouse as judges. Many friends, in fact, suggested the couple apply for the show.

"We actually got a call from someone who said he worked for the series," McDowell explained. "I tend bar at night and figured it must've one of my customers, calling the house, trying to punk us or something."

Instead, the staffer turned out to be legitimate and the producers had seen an Associated Press article showcasing the couple's annual Christmas display.

After applying, Watchorn recalled waiting for months. Finally, the TV producers contacted him with the news that they'd be sending a crew to the Dixon County city with a population of less than 1,000.

"They came to our house, taped what they needed and left in December 2017," he said. 

Wait, Watchorn's "The Great Christmas Light Fight" segment, which aired a few weeks ago, was actually filmed nearly a year ago?

"That's right, we couldn't tell anyone we were going to be on the show or that we won for the longest time," McDowell said. "Everything had to be kept a secret."

Since the show's aired, Watchorn has been overwhelmed by requests from schools, groups and regular people wanting to see his winter wonderland.

"I feel like I'm Gene's press secretary or something," McDowell said, teasingly. "I'm the one scheduling many of the individual tours."

Which is fine for Watchorn, who has always had a soft spot for the season.

"My family was very much into Christmas," he explained. "As a kid, I remember these big, annual holiday celebrations. Once, family members would pass on or moved away, it seemed like the celebrations were getting smaller and smaller."

That was the case until Watchorn picked up the Christmas decorating bug nearly 40 years ago.

"Things just got bigger once my kids and Julie's kids started having children of their own," he said. "It's OK to spoil the grandkids on Christmas."

Nevertheless, it remains a major undertaking. 

Watchorn said he gets the house Christmas-ready around Labor Day, while working on holiday-related projects throughout the year.

Surprisingly, he said only a portion of his seasonal collection gets displayed each year.

"You think I have a lot of Christmas stuff?" Watchorn said with a chuckle. "Actually, I have much more still in storage."

Still, the items he displays have meaning to him.

Walking inside a room containing more than 6,000 individual figurines, Watchorn noted the ones which have been in his family for decades.

"This is what Christmas should be about," he said. 'I've had family traditions and memories that have been passed down to me. I'm sharing those traditions and memories to the next generation of my own family."

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Crary Huff Attorneys at Law has donated to the Journal's Goodfellows charity. Shown Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, at the Sioux City, Iowa, firm are, from left, Dan Hartnett, Marci Iseminger, David Briese, Mike Schmiedt, Sabrina Sayler, Darrell Jesse, Mick Connealy, Laura Schmitt, Sharese Whitesell, Jeremy Saint and Cody McCullough. Not shown are Larry Storm and Dennis Ringgenberg. 


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Street, sidewalk repairs top concern for Sioux City seniors

SIOUX CITY -- Sioux City seniors say street and sidewalk repairs, senior discounts and lower property taxes are top concerns that the city should address, according to the results of a new senior living survey.

A total of 356 surveys were completed by residents age 55 or older, their family members or caretakers between Aug. 31 and Sept. 30. The survey was developed by Sioux City's Seniors Advisory Committee in effort to enrich and enhance the quality of life for the senior population. Survey topics included transportation, housing and health care services.

"We plan to use these top 10 areas of concern as our planning tool for the next year. We plan on meeting with different city departments regarding these areas of concern and trying to work with agencies that have something to do with that to try to create some solutions for these problems," said Ann Brodersen, who chairs the committee, which has only been in existence for a year.

Eight-eight percent of survey respondents said they plan to remain in the community as they age. Thirty-two percent rated Sioux City as a "very good" place for people to live as they age, while 34 percent described it as a "good" place. The community received high ratings in the availability of volunteer opportunities for seniors (84 percent) and activities geared toward seniors (65 percent).

Respondents were evenly split on whether the city provides well-maintained, safe parks with adequate access to benches and public restrooms. A majority of respondents who answered questions about the availability of affordable home health care services and in-home care services, including health, personal care and housekeeping, said the community came up short.

While the Seniors Advisory Committee will be working with various city departments and committees, as well as local service agencies to try to address these needs, property taxes is an area that the committee found they won't be able to impact, especially for middle income residents. A tax credit is available for low-income residents through the Woodbury County Treasurer's Office. The committee advises other residents to reach out to their state legislators.

Brodersen said another need committee members noted in the comments section of the survey was seniors' desire for two-bedroom houses that don't have basements. Seniors on a fixed income, she said, can't afford to move into a $200,000 or $300,000 home or rent a $1,000 a month apartment.

"You don't see a lot of those on the market right now. I don't know of any here in Sioux City," she said of the simple, affordable homes. "I've seen them in other communities like Ames. Those seem to be something that people in this age group are looking for."

Senior Living Survey Summary