Where it all started . . . at the home of Harry Overly.
In 1956, Harry Overly first decorated his rural Armbrust home with just a few strands of lights. Most people would have been content stopping right there but Harry's vision of a light display happened when he was encouraged by the delight of his four children.
"The kids like it," was all Harry Overly would tell anyone as they watched the light display grow. And he wasn't content with hanging strands of lights from the eaves of his house and in the bushes. It was his attention to detail that made the difference. Lights were meticulously intertwined in the branches of trees and strung in perfect rows along miles of fence that outlined his property.
Harry was one of the first people to add animation to his displays. Over the years, the Overly home and surrounding seven acres became a showcase: first attracting neighbors, then people from nearby communities and later people from all over the region. Soon those same neighbors and friends wanted to become involved; they volunteered to play Santa and Mrs. Claus while local young people dressed as elves to hand out lollipops to the children in passing cars. Many a child driving by was convinced that this indeed was where Santa and Mrs. Claus lived.
Then one year, when Harry himself was dressed as Santa Claus, a woman handed him a dollar in appreciation for the marvelous light display that brought so much joy to her children. Harry explained that there was no charge to see the lights, and the woman replied, "Well, give it to your favorite charity!" That simple recommendation was the seed that grew into the vision of the light display someday becoming a major charitable fundraiser... But for what cause?
The answer came without hesitation. Harry knew immediately that the light display could only be used to benefit children's causes. During the 35 years that the light display was held at the Overly home, nearly one million dollars was raised by donations from cars passing by and later through an annual preview cocktail party held at the Overly home.
That first one million dollars, raised mostly from coins, was donated to the Free Care Fund at Pittsburgh Children's Hospital and children's medical services at Westmoreland Regional Hospital in Greensburg by the Overly family.
The Story Continues at a Crossroads...
Not long after the 1983-84 holiday season Harry Overly suffered a heart attack. It was a long recuperation and doctors advised Harry to take a year off from the light display. Christmas didn't quite seem the same at the Overly home. The following year doctors were still encouraging Harry to take it easy, and he agreed that putting up the display by himself would be a daunting task, but he found he wasn't alone. Countless friends, neighbors and beneficiaries of his donations said, "Let us find a way to help." They didn't want to see the magical display end, and then realized it had become too much for one man and his family. That fall, school groups, business associates, individuals, friends and neighbors volunteered to set up the lights.
From that point on, Harry realized that the display had a life of its own and the potential to grow even larger and raise even more money for children. The twinkling lights and the promise of donations for children's charities had captured the hearts and imagination of hundreds of people who were willing to commit their own time to make it survive and grow.
In 1991, Harry announced that the light display at his home would end and that he was in search of a new, larger home where even more people could see the lights. In 1992, with the holiday season rapidly approaching, Idlewild Park in Ligonier agreed to become a temporary site for the display in its transitional effort to find a new home. The following year, in 1993, a new home was found at the Westmoreland Fairgrounds near Greensburg. Then, in 1994, Harry established a nonprofit corporation to ensure that his work would continue when he was no longer able.
Today, Overly's Country Christmas® is operated mainly by volunteers who continue bringing holiday traditions and memories to all who visit and to help those less fortunate.
In Harry Overly's Own Words . . .
Hear the story of the lights in Harry Overly's own words.
A Tribute to Harry Overly
Harry Overly, founder of holiday light display, dies at 68.
by Cindy Ekas-Brown, Herald-Standard Staff Writer
Harry Overly, who was well-known throughout western Pennsylvania for his annual Christmas light display, will be remembered as someone who touched many lives.
The 68-year-old Armbrust man died Monday afternoon at Westmoreland Regional Hospital in Greensburg. He had been battling leukemia for more than a year.
"Harry Overly touched more lives than he realized," said his friend Jack Wilkinson, owner of Wilkinson's Nursery in Armbrust.
"I think the timing of Harry's death is interesting because this time of the year was the most exciting for him because of his Christmas light display," Wilkinson said.
"When my little granddaughter found out that Harry died, she said, 'He will be lighting up the stars in heaven,'" he said.
Stephanie Tomasic, executive director of Overly's Country Christmas, said she was devastated when she learned that Overly had died.Tomasic, who had volunteered at Overly's Country Christmas since 1983, began working as partners with Overly about five years ago.
"I want to first tell you what Harry meant to me," Tomasic said. "He was my friend, my mentor, my partner, my confidant and sometimes even my father."
In business, he was a perfectionist who demanded 110 percent out of everyone, and he got it," Tomasic added. "He was a visionary with a great warm heart. He meant everything to me. I'm really going to miss him."
Tomasic said the last five years that she spent working closely with Overly on the Christmas light display have been "the best years of my life."
Since Overly's death, Tomasic said she has been asked if the Christmas lights will be shut off as a tribute to Overly.
"We will absolutely not turn off the lights," Tomasic said. "The greatest tribute to Harry Overly would be for us to keep the Christmas lights on. The greatest tribute anyone can pay to Harry Overly is to come out and see the lights." Despite Overly's death, Tomasic said the Christmas light display will continue in the future.
"In 1994, Harry Overly created the Overly Charitable Foundation to continue his vision and to ensure that this would continue when he could no longer do it," she said. "We have a fine board of directors that will take over. I would like to think that Harry Overly has taught me well enough to continue."
"Harry Overly might not be physically here with me, but he is still here with me in spirit," Tomasic added.
Wilkinson said Overly, whom he described as a self-made businessman, will be greatly missed by the community.
"Harry Overly had a magnetic personality," Wilkinson said. "He sure came a long way in life, but he never had any formal education. I think he finished eighth grade, but he didn't even go to high school. He was a self-taught and hands-on guy."
Wilkinson said he and Overly grew up together about one-half mile apart in the close-knit Westmoreland County community.
"I had known Harry Overly all of my life," Wilkinson said. "When I was a little kid, Harry was a big kid."
"Some of the kids were jealous of Harry because he always had a couple of dollars in his pocket," he added. "When Harry was 18 years old, he started a garbage collection route with a pickup truck. Harry then bought a dump truck and then a compactor."
A self-made businessman, Overly first approached Greengate Mall ownership for a contract to haul garbage and maintain the grounds.
Overly steadily rose through the ranks of the Rouse Corporation which owned the site. Eventually, he became mall manager and later, a corporate consultant nationwide.
Overly was well-known throughout western Pennsylvania for his annual Christmas light display, which began decades ago at this Armbrust home. The display was later moved to Idlewild Park near Ligonier and then to the Westmoreland Fairgrounds near Norvelt.
"Harry Overly was an organizer and a motivator," Wilkinson said. "He had hundreds of volunteers who helped him every year with the light display. He raised thousands of dollars to benefit hospitalized pediatric patients and other charities."
Because of his involvement in the light display, Overly was known as Santa Claus at the local restaurants where he frequented, Wilkinson said.
"Harry was just a character. He sure had come a long way in his life," Wilkinson said. For about two months, Overly had been a patient at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. His leukemia was thought to be in remission, and Overly asked the doctors if he could come home for Christmas.
"Harry came home about two weeks ago because he wanted to spend time with his family during the holidays," Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson and Overly went out to dinner together on Friday night. The next day, Overly visited Wilkinson at his nursery. Overly attended church services on Sunday morning at Armbrust Wesleyan Church where both men were members.
"After church on Sunday, Harry Overly went out to breakfast with his sisters in New Stanton," Wilkinson said. "He seemed to be doing fine. He was having a difficult time Sunday night, and the ambulance came to the house. He died the next day.
"Harry is definitely going to be missed by the community," he added.
Reproduced with permission from the Herald-Standard, December 1998.