‘There’s no formula here’ – A Hawkeye Holiday Story

A sign greets entrants as they turn into the driveway at Marv and Ruth Hiddleson’s West Des Moines, Iowa home. It reads, “Hawkeyes Parking Only.”

A Hawkeye flag angles out from the home, near the front door, making the message very clear: Iowa fans live here.

Marv and Ruth Hiddleson prepare decorations for their Hawkeye themed Christmas tree.

The spirit doesn’t stop there. The University of Iowa graduates’ home is full of nods to the University of Iowa and its rich athletics history – a 2014 Iowa Football Media Guide and a biography of Hawkeye football legend Nile Kinnick are just two of the books sitting on tables in their living room, and a bathroom on the main floor is black and gold with walls covered in framed photos of Iowa basketball and football stars.

In 2004, the couple teamed up with fellow Hawkeye fans Bob Mitchell and Jan Burch to decorate a 4-foot artificial Christmas tree for the Des Moines, Iowa, Festival of Trees and Lights. By that time, Mitchell and Burch had a few years of volunteerism for the fundraiser that benefits the Blank Children’s Hospital.

“I think you two felt sorry for us, doing the tree by ourselves,” Burch said of the Hiddlesons’ involvement.

“I agree,” Mitchell said.

Ruth’s rationale differed.

“I think it’s friends getting together,” she said.

Bob Mitchell and Jan Burch decorate the University of Iowa Alumni Association’s entry into Des Moines’ 2014 Festival of Trees and Lights.

And so they do, each year in November, with black and gold trinkets to place on a tree. Their goal is to raise the most money – the trees sit on display and people can bid to take them home.

“It’s amazing how the years roll by,” Marv said.

This year, their tree – helped by the presence of a pair of Iowa women’s basketball season tickets, a pair of Iowa men’s basketball season tickets, and a pair of club seats to an Iowa football game – sold for $1,400. It was the largest haul of the more than 20 4-foot trees in the festival’s Little Neighborhood Tree Forest.

“That’s how we get our value,” Marv said of the tickets, which the University of Iowa athletics department donates.

“But we know it’s the tree,” Burch added, with a smile.

Each member of the quartet agreed that the goal is to have the tree garner the highest bid, especially if it means raising more money than the trees Iowa State University submits to the festival.

“Iowa State’s colors being red and gold, they have a Christmas color in there, which is an advantage,” said Mitchell, a member of the UI Alumni Association’s board of directors, of the friendly rivalry and how it impacts the quartet’s decor decisions.

That playful rift is part of what motivates these four to keep doing the tree each year. Iowa State gets a lot of attention in West Des Moines, which is located much closer to the university’s Ames campus than the UI’s Iowa City base. The tree is their way of showing off their UI school spirit.

“Whatever we can do,” Burch said.

The UIAA foots the bill for the ornaments and gifts that sit under the tree. The two couples then have carte blanche to select what they think will look best to bidders’ eyes.

A small glimpse of the goodies under this year’s tree.

“There’s no formula here,” Mitchell said.

The system appears to work. They estimated that they spend between $300 and $350 each year and that their trees have raised a total of $15,000 since they began volunteering together.

“Ruth and Jan look at all the stores and if they see anything that says ‘Iowa,’ they buy it,” Marv said. “If you wait until tomorrow, it’s gone.”

They’ve used a Hawkeye fleece blanket as a tree skirt and sat a toaster, which put a Tigerhawk logo on the toast, under the tree. This year, Burch made a black and gold wreath for the tree.

“We keep our eyes open,” she said. “You never know. One year I picked up a whole box of ornaments at a garage sale.”

The finished product.

This year, a plate of homemade fudge in UI shapes accompanied the tree. These extras, as well as the ornaments, have become so popular that the volunteers have to tie them to the tree when possible, so they don’t ‘mysteriously walk away,’ Burch said.

Once the holiday season wraps up, Ruth and Burch will ramp up the search for next year’s ornaments.

“There was a year a few years ago, where we thought it would be our last year,” Burch said. “It was pretty fleeting. We realized we had gone shopping and had all this stuff.”

Mitchell said one reason keeps them gathering for this tradition each year: fun. That’s why they each want to continue decorating for the festival for the foreseeable future.

“Until we’re fired,” Mitchell said.

“Until someone comes along and says they can do a better job,” Burch followed.

“We’re happy to let them have a try,” Mitchell said.

“And then tell them how to do it,” Ruth added.

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