EAST PEORIA — It is an East Peoria story.
Andrew and Cecelia Henricks loved East Peoria and they loved the East Peoria Festival of Lights. Enthusiastic volunteers, Cecelia helped build many of the original exhibits and light boards and walked alongside a float in the annual holiday parade of colorfully lighted, rolling wire sculptures. Andrew built a star out of plywood, 2-by-6s, and 8-foot lighting tubes. The star debuted in Veterans Park, the site of the Winter Wonderland, in 1984, the first year of the festival.
The 30-foot star was affixed to the top of two poles planted at the edge of a tall bluff and cast its white fluorescent light in the direction of the city of East Peoria, the Illinois River, the city of Peoria and beyond. With only the outline of the star outlined in light, not the poles it stood atop, it appeared in the dark from below as if it floated above the bluff, unmoored between the leafless trees, another bright star in the night sky. Only different from the rest. It became a familiar, welcoming beacon. People looked for it.
Andrew Henricks died in 1988 and the star became known as the Henricks Star, in memory and in tribute to the man who made it. The original wore out and was replaced with a star made of steel. It wore out too.
"They simply fell apart from time and the elements," said John Broshears, chairman of the Lights Parade, a man who knows every light bulb of every parade float and exhibit as well as he knows the lamp on his own nightstand.
Alan Henricks, son of Andrew and Cecelia, and his wife, Gwenne, contacted Broshears a couple of years ago about replacing the old star with a more modern one, to maintain the display as a gift from the family to the city. Alan and Gwenne Henricks no longer live in East Peoria but their connection to the city is a birthright, not a fleeting happenstance of geography. It's home. It still matters.
Cecelia Henricks died in September. She was 89. Her passing accelerated the process of replacing the Henricks Star. Suddenly, there were two Henricks to memorialize.
"We wanted to get it done for this year," Alan Henricks said Dec. 6, telling the story while standing in a cold wind that rolled across Veterans Park and over the edge of the bluff toward the city of East Peoria and the skyline of Peoria far below and distant.
The star's design was created by Albert Durst of Bessler Welding in East Peoria, and Broshears. Made out of aircraft aluminum so it will withstand wind, the star was made in about two weeks. A group of park district workers and festival volunteers erected the star recently. It has been lit ever since.
"Cecelia was an active supporter of East Peoria's Festival of Lights, and Andy built the star that shines over East Peoria during the festival. Memorial contributions for rebuilding and maintaining the star may be made in Cecelia's memory," read a portion of Cecelia's obituary that ran in the Journal Star in September.
Several mourners donated to the cause, though most of the star's $15,000 cost was borne by the family.
The star is 50 feet tall from the ground to the top of its pointed tip. The lights on the Henricks star are an upgrade from fluorescent to LED, a much brighter, cooler, less costly form of illumination. Whether it will remain lit year-round or just during the Christmas season is still being discussed. For now, though, it's on.
"The star represents hope and is meant to inspire each of us to take a role in turning hope into reality." Gwenne Henricks wrote down the meaning of the star to her family rather than risk extemporaneous spoken words falling short of the mark. "Andy and Cecelia set this example during their lives."
City of East Peoria spokeswoman Jill Peterson joined the gathering on the bluff Dec. 6 to talk about the star and its meaningful backstory.
"The LED lights are really bright," she said.
"They could like light up an operating room," Alan Henricks said.
"I'm told it can be seen from Chillicothe," Peterson said.