Section: Features

Chainsaws, chicken wire and Kenyon’s Christmas wreath

Chainsaws, chicken wire and Kenyon’s Christmas wreath

Kenyon promotes itself on the “About Kenyon” section of the web page as a school that “welcomes curiosity, creativity, intellectual ambition and an openness to new ideas.” In mid-December of 1990, students, Kenyon staff, Christmas tree farmers and some high school teachers from Mount Vernon put their energies towards turning an idea into reality on the lawn connecting Peirce Hall and Ascension Hall. Their leader was none other than Bobby Voth ’92: a man on a mission.

Voth, now a Cleveland-based consultant and managing director for Russell Reynold Associates, led a community-wide effort to construct the world’s largest Christmas wreath. While the Collegian reported that nearly 60 members of the press would be in attendance to witness this massive undertaking, including the Columbus Dispatch and USA Today, one crucial figure had been forgotten: a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records.

Voth hatched this idea around 10 p.m. on a Thursday night in the middle of that fall semester. Voth recalls that he was studying when his roommate, Karl Slatoff ’92, walked in. He said that there was a Guinness Book of World Records lying out in the common area. Slatoff picked up the book and, to Voth’s recollection, said, “I can break any of these records and I’ll get in there before you can,” tossing the book in Voth’s direction as a challenge.

Voth says this was a typical joke from Slatoff, a national champion on the Kenyon swimming and diving team. Despite, or perhaps because of, the challenge’s jocular origins, Voth flipped through the book and soon came upon a record that looked beatable: a massive 113-foot wreath constructed by the Clemsonville Christmas Tree Farm in Maryland.

“And then it just came to me: We could just go to the main area in front of Peirce and build a wreath, so that’s how it started,” Voth said, looking back on that fateful night. From there, Voth brought his idea forward to then-Dean of Students Cheryl Steele. Steele wanted to see a plan before she gave him institutional support.

It didn’t take long for Voth to come up with a design. It was, essentially, an elevated trench: a circle of chicken wire stapled to wooden poles spaced six feet apart. The chicken wire would be bent into an upside-down U-shape so to act as a basket for literally tons of spruce, pine and fir. With this simple but ambitious idea, Voth returned to Steele, who approved the plan and provided him with a small operating budget.

After he received approval from the College, the Collegian reported on Voth’s plan in the Nov. 15, 1990 issue. The attempt was scheduled for Dec. 15. Pulling from all corners of the campus, Voth promised an event that would rival the Whos of Whoville. To the Collegian, he said that in unveiling his wreath plan: “Gambier will not only be in the Guinness Book of World Records but in almost every newspaper throughout the nation.” Voth had enlisted the help of Micheal Matros, Kenyon’s then-news director, to get in touch with over 60 print and television media outlets.

In addition, Voth said he placed a call with Guinness and they gave him the rules. They told him to make sure to reach out again and make sure that he had a representative there to verify the record.

“So, we needed to get poles, we needed to get chicken wire … and then somehow we had to get enough Christmas trees to fill the wreath,” Voth said.

Voth got a hold of the chicken wire and wooden poles pretty quickly; Kenyon maintenance worker Yauncey Newman helped Voth get great discounts on them. “Yauncey Newman was … well-known to all the students, a wonderful, wonderful man,” Voth recalled. Newman and his wife, Juanita, were both long-time employees of the College who formed close connections with many students.

As for the Christmas trees, Voth found a local tree farm and offered approximately one dollar per foot for the bad trees that they weren’t going to sell. They dropped off over 100 Christmas trees. Voth again turned to the community to break these trees down into branches to weave into a wreath. Voth enlisted teachers from Mount Vernon High School, who he knew from helping to coach the school’s wrestling team during his time at Kenyon.

According to Voth, an army teachers, armed with hand saws and chainsaws, descended upon the Hill, piling up the branches and carting off tree trunks.

With everything in order, the Dec. 13 issue of the Collegian previewed the event. It noted that the chicken wire and pole structure would form a wreath 140 feet in diameter, once the trough was filled in with a reported 10 tons of Christmas tree remnants. The event was cosponsored by the Student Council, the Office of Student Activities, the Dean of Student Affairs and the Kenyon Inn. Peirce catered the event with hot chocolate and eggnog. Originally slated as a nightlong celebration similar to Summer Sendoff, budget constraints forced the event to become, as Voth told the paper then, “more of an afternoon study break.” In addition to its aim of spreading holiday cheer, the event also collected canned goods, clothing and monetary donations for Food for the Hungry, sponsored by Mount Vernon’s Salvation Army and Inter-Church.

Voth said the hardest part of the construction was hammering the 200 to 300 poles into the ground and stapling the chicken wire to them. He and a group of friends carried out this task the Friday before the big event.

Starting at 10 a.m. that Saturday morning, the wreath took form in about an hour as hundreds of students, alongside staff members and Gambier residents, filled the trough with evergreen.

“That Saturday morning, we just got students together and we just dropped all the Christmas wreath materials into the chicken wire and voila, you’ve got the world’s largest Christmas wreath,” Voth said. This was true: the 140-foot-wide wreath bested Clemsonville Christmas Tree Farm’s world record by 27 feet.

According to Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Bonham ’92, who at the time was enjoying the final days of the fall of junior year before spending the spring abroad, Bobby Voth and his wreath form a vivid memory in her days as a student.

“Bobby’s just a wonderful person who would pursue a passion project like building the world’s largest Christmas wreath, so he is a memorable figure from my time at Kenyon,” Bonham said.

Over the course of the upcoming school year, 1991-92, Writer in Residence P.F. Kluge ’64 would write Alma Mater, documenting a year in the life of the College. While Voth’s project occurred two semesters too soon to make it into Kluge’s book, Bonham spoke of a culture of getting noticed that would really take flight in her and Voth’s senior year.

“In the fall, [the wreath] was just another wacky event in the life of Kenyon College,” she said. “Bobby put a lot of effort into it and it was just a weird and wonderful thing about our time at Kenyon.”

Voth’s wreath lost out on literary immortality not only in the case of Kluge’s Alma Mater but also, more importantly, failed to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. USA Today and the Columbus Dispatch were on-site according to Voth, but not a representative from Guinness.

“My roommates took pictures, we developed them, we did everything they asked us to do from the ground up, except for that very important piece,” Voth said. While Voth was embarrassed at the time, the near-miss was still a memorable event and, furthermore, as the old adage goes: It’s more about the bonds one builds along the way.

For Voth’s roommate, this was the best possible outcome to arise from his passing joke about the record book.

“Karl loved it. Karl thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Voth said.

Voth, now in business, took two important lessons from his wreath.

“The formative piece is everything has a solution. Literally everything has a solution,” Voth said. “Nothing can’t be done, per se, it’s just, ‘do you have the capability and drive to do it?’”

In addition to demonstrating the power of human creativity and simple ideas, Kenyon’s wreath also serves as a cautionary tale.

“The huge lesson from it was, follow the rules, man. Dot your I’s and cross your T’s. A good idea is not good enough,” Voth said, adding that when he has an idea now, he checks himself to make sure it’s not “another wreath.”

While Voth didn’t make it into the record books, Bonham considers the wreath a hallmark of what Kenyon and the class of 1992 mean to her. She looked back on returning five years ago to work at the College she had fallen in love with as a student.

“Kenyon was at its core still very much the same institution, but had evolved and innovated in ways that made it more relevant and contemporary,” Bonham said, citing a fundamentally quirky and innovative spirit.

Beyond just the institution, Bonham referenced in particular the genuine affection she felt for her classmates, all juniors in the year of the wreath. “We just have these friendships and bonds that have endured over time and that’s something that I try not to take for granted,” Bonham said.

As for the record that never was, Voth believes an even larger wreath is possible on Peirce Lawn.

According to the Cobequid Christmas Tree Producers’ Association, the most recent Guinness World Record for largest wreath belongs to Carolann Naugle, who constructed a wreath with a diameter of 251.9 feet using rail and rebar. Once the modular units are removed from Peirce Lawn, the record is ripe for the taking.

“You could do that right in front of Ascension easily,” Voth said.


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