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Operating Engineers: Putting Up The Christmas Tree

Jack-o’-lanterns and cotton spiderwebs may have decorated the porches of a quiet suburban Lansing neighborhood on October 30th, but Christmas was definitely in the air.  In the pre-dawn hours, a team – including over a dozen Operating Engineers 324 Apprentices, Journeymen and Instructors – assembled to carry out a task that brings Christmas to Michigan’s capitol city: the cutting of the state Christmas tree.

For Denny Olson, this has become a Christmas tradition like wrapping presents and singing carols.  For the last 17 years, Olson has been part of the team that selects, cuts down, transports and then sets up the state Christmas tree in front of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing.  Olson represents both the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association and the Michigan Association of Timbermen, which works with the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget to select a tree in August that will represent the state.

“Normally, we cut the tree in the U.P.,” explains Olson. “There’s a celebration when we harvest the tree.  We usually have bands there playing Christmas music. There are a lot of schoolkids and they get fired up being part of this.”

But 2020 has been different in every way, and this is no exception.  Given the concerns about COVID and public safety standards around groups, they decided to forgo the celebration this year.  Instead of the UP, a tree was selected in this residential area of Lansing, in the backyard of a homeowner who volunteered their tree.

So, as the sun rose on that Friday morning, it revealed a unique sight: trucks lined up, with volunteers there to help bring the tree down; a man-lift to raise up the person who would be securing the tree, and most notably, a Grove GMK5210 crane setup on the street behind the house.  The crane would boom over the trees and powerlines at the back of the property, secure the tree with rigging, and after it was cut, lift it to the street so the branches can be secured and it can be placed on a trailer for the drive to the Capitol.

The crane and operators are part of Hi-Ball Crane, which was purchased this year by M&W Crane.  Operating Engineers 324’s Adam McDurman was the Project Manager for M&W Crane, and this was his first involvement with the state Christmas tree.

“The previous owner was very passionate about being part of the Christmas tree program.  They had done it for many years, so when M&W purchased Hi-Ball in February, we promised (the previous owner) we would keep it going.”

McDurman, a OE324 Journeyman who graduated from the Apprenticeship program, was part of the team that met with Olson and others in the late summer to discuss the tree and how to harvest it.  There was a concern that, because of COVID, they might have trouble finding help to harvest the tree.  That’s when they thought of their mutual friend OE324 Apprenticeship Coordinator Mark Zinser.

Zinser had the answer.  OE324 Apprentices would be proud to assist in any way possible.  So, when the team assembled that morning, there were TEN OE324 Apprentices, as well as Zinser, Outreach Coordinator John Hartwell and LMEC Director Lee Graham there to lend a hand.  They joined M&W Operators Paul Leach and Cameron Radosa who would operate the crane to make the lift.

After meeting the family, the team went to work.  The crane was raised over the tree.  Logging professionals secured the rigging to support the tree and, after it was secured, they began cutting the trunk with chainsaws.  When the 58-foot tree broke free, the crane lifted it over the yard, trees and power lines.

For the Apprentices, that’s when the real work began.

OE324 Apprentice Jake Lippe grew up in Willamston, just down the road from Lansing, and has fond memories of the Michigan Christmas tree in Lansing.

“I grew up going to ‘Silver Bells’ (the tree-lighting ceremony in Lansing), watching the parade.” He laughs. “I may have taken a few dates there.  So it was really special to be part of this, to be part of the bigger picture.”

As the tree was set down in the street, the apprentices went to work.  Branches need to be tied and pulled back, to keep it from being damaged during transport.  Ropes were affixed to branches and, working with the crane operator, pulled to limit them from being crushed by the enormous weight of the tree. The apprentices climbed into the tree, wrapping the ropes around branches and pulling opposite the crane’s movements.

The tree was then loaded onto a truck for the six-mile journey to the Capitol, where it put into place by another M&W crane – this time a National NBT40142 operated by Al Bais and Terry Groulx.

For Olson, this was the 19th tree he has helped select.  He started his career in 1969 as an Operating Engineer 324 member and although he went on to start his own logging company, he’s proud to be associated with the organization he started his career with.

“I’m so proud to say I did join the Operators.  I chose to be an owner/operator and haul logs working for myself, but I still got that in me that I am proud that I got my Operator card.”

This was the McDurman’s first year helping with the Christmas tree, but is grateful for the opportunity.

“When you do a project like that one, with people from all over the state were there working on it, there was no question that we had properly trained people and the right people there to do the job,” explains McDurmon.

“When you use union skilled trades labor, you are getting professionalism, safety and well-trained professionals.”

Lippe, too, is proud to have taken part in such a long-standing tradition. “From when I first went to talk to Mark about a class and he offered this chance to volunteer, I was estatic.  I was thrilled to even be a candidate to help. It’s a way to give back and take part in community outreach.”

“This is a tradition, and I got to be part of it, and join in the camaraderie.  It was a great experience.”

For McDurman, it was a much-needed return to normalcy.  “With everything going on right now, with the election, with COVID, it’s a little bit of normalcy.  The Christmas season’s here, let’s make this as normal as we can. That is why it was important to our team, and to both of our owners (Joe Kraniyak and Mike Radosa).  They wanted to carry on that tradition with the State of Michigan and Hi-Ball Crane.”

Olson has seen a lot in his long career, as an Operator, as an Owner/Operator and as an industry leader.  For him, the most impressive part was seeing the involvement of a new generation of timbermen, loggers and operators.

“I’m really proud to see the enthusiasm, the excitement, and young people coming together to be part of this program.”

And when the tree-lighting took place on November 20 with a virtual event broadcast on local TV, Lippe was watching.

“We get a pretty big tree over here at my house.  We have a vaulted ceiling, so it might even be 16 feet high.”

He laughs again. “But nothing like this.  I watched and I got to say ‘I helped do that.'”

“It was a continuation of what we are, what we do. We are a brotherhood. We think of ourselves as a special breed,  because we are.”