Small town's gag gift has been passed down for 30 yrs

Posted at 2:55 PM, Dec 11, 2014
and last updated 2015-12-06 14:33:25-05

The tradition of a Pennsylvania town's infamous gag gift — a water heater decorated with Christmas lights — has come full circle.

Past recipients of the holiday prank gift recently awarded it to the widow of the man who started the tradition 30 years ago, Tom Lahart.

Lahart, 70, died Nov. 30 after a brief illness, having told his wife in his final weeks that "I hope I'm better for the water heater."

On Tuesday night, the fraternity of men who have received the water heater in the past three decades stealthily placed the water heater in the front yard of Lahart's home on North Loveland Avenue in Kingston — near Wilkes-Barre — while his widow sat inside watching television.

They turned on the lights using an electrical outlet they spotted while scouting out the home.

A former co-worker of Lahart soon knocked on the door and surprised Lahart's widow, Betty, who became the first woman bestowed with the unusual honor.

"I saw it and cried. All of the guys came over to offer their condolences," Betty Lahart said. "He never had the water heater. This year, they thought he should have it."

The rules of getting the water heater are simple: It must be prominently displayed and lit every night from dusk until dawn no matter what, or you face the penalty of having to keep it next year and relinquish future voting rights.

Betty Lahart plans to follow the rules and join the select group in picking next year's recipient.

"Next year I have to dress warm and get in the truck and help bring it to someone's house," she said.

The holiday tradition began in 1984 after a dispute over Lahart's malfunctioning water heater around Christmas.

As the legend goes, Lahart had his plumber friend John McGlynn replace his water heater, but Lahart refused to pay McGlynn $10 to haul it away.

As a joke, McGlynn left the water heater in the yard of Lahart's neighbor, Duke Grimes, another elder statesman of the tradition. To get back at McGlynn, Lahart and Grimes decorated the water heater with Christmas lights and placed it in McGlynn's yard as a Christmas gift.

A tradition was born. The decorated water heater has appeared in the yard of a Kingston resident every year since, except in 1999 when they couldn't arrange an annual meeting.

"It started as a joke and it's been something everyone looks forward to," Betty Lahart said. "It's an honor it's here. I'm honored they did it in his memory."

Every person who has gotten the water heater over the 30 years has kept it up and lit through the holidays — though there is some dispute. Some of the newer members have come to believe Kevin Boylan, the second-ever recipient, was never allowed into the clan because his wife kicked the water heater behind their Vaughn Street house the morning it was put up in 1985.

"We had just moved in. I had just decorated the front of the house. The next morning, she goes out to get the newspaper. There was this water heater with a big ugly star at the top," Boylan, a former Kingston restaurant owner, recalled Wednesday. "We were like, 'Are you kidding me?'"

They suspected a disgruntled new neighbor was behind it. But later that day, McGlynn, Grimes and Lahart showed up and told Boylan about the tradition they were trying to start.

"I stood it back up and we let it out there," Boylan said.

Boylan said he hasn't been active for years in the group — allowing the rumor to grow that he said bah humbug to the tradition.

"It's a tradition you can only find in a small town," Boylan said. "It went from surprising people to people starting to call asking if they could get it."

As the newest member of the group, Betty Lahart and some other newbies will have to do the work of carrying the water heater to its new location next year while the veterans gather around, watch and spring into a Christmas song when the recipient answers.

"They do the dirty work. It's their turn," said Jack Coslett, who worked with Lahart for the Kingston public works department and was the one who knocked on Betty Lahart's door Tuesday night.

Earlier Tuesday, the group gathered at Dugan's Pub in Luzerne for their annual meeting to decide on the recipient. Normally, they choose a nominee by secret ballot — writing names on a piece of paper and putting them in a hat. They then tally votes, eliminate names, and do the process over several more times until a winner is selected.

On Tuesday, it was unanimous: the founding father of the Kingston water heater tradition should get the old rust bucket, which had to be replaced by newer models several times over the years.

"I didn't know he never got it — and he was one of the originators," Coslett said. "It's a lot of fun. It's a great tradition. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. We want to keep it going for another 30 years."

If this group seems like a secret society, in some ways it is. Asked to reveal what happens to the water heater between holiday seasons, Coslett wouldn't budge.

"I can't tell you," he said with a chuckle.