Michael Hertzog on the job at The Lutheran Home at Topton.

  • Student, volunteer memorializes father in Christmas display

    Topton, Pa. January 28, 2015

    If residents of The Lutheran Home at Topton happened to drive down Lori Lane in nearby Mertztown last fall, they may have seen the familiar face of a young man laboring in his family’s yard or garage most evenings and weekends.

    His project?

    Creating an enormous, fun and slightly over-the-top Christmas lights display to honor his late father.

    The Topton residents would have known Michael Hertzog because he of his volunteer efforts at the Diakon senior living community in northeastern Berks County. He began volunteering at The Lutheran Home at Topton when he was 13, transporting residents and assisting with activities; moreover, he recently became a part-time employee in the food service department. Now a 10th-grader at Brandywine Heights High School, Michael intends to pursue a career in physical therapy or nursing someday—a desire that surprises no one who is acquainted with teen, described as generous and warm-hearted.

    Karen Sinkovits, Topton activities director, says Michael is very involved and is a “natural” with residents, chatting with them as he delivers food and expressing genuine interest in everyone around him.

    The display is so impressive, it was featured in an area Christmas lights tour ....

    It’s no wonder, then, that he single-handedly tackled his family’s two-acre Christmas display, traditionally done with his father, as a tribute to his dad’s memory.

    A business and math teacher at Reading High School for 35 years, as well as a state championship-winning baseball coach, David Hertzog was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. When his illness worsened last fall, Michael raced to finish the decorations, hoping that his father could see them one more time.

    “I started really early this past season,” Michael explains. “People who weren’t aware of the situation probably thought I was crazy.”

    Sadly, Mr. Hertzog passed away Oct. 1 at the age of 57.

    Michael was devastated, but even in his grief he resolved to finish the display and make it better than ever.

    “I needed to do it,” he says. “The holiday season was rough, but it gave me something else to think about and something to look forward to.”

    Some of the Hertzogs' holiday display.

    In the future he’ll always have the memory of the fun that he and his father shared every holiday season, he adds.

    “My dad and I started decorating the house when I was 7 years old,” he says. “We started small, and every year we kept adding more lights and more decorations, and it gradually got bigger and bigger. We had to run extension cords out the windows and we were always blowing fuses. It got to be a bit of fire hazard, so we eventually had to add 60 amps to the side to the house.”

    And then there were the road trips.

    “We used to drive pretty far to pick up antique or special pieces that we bought on eBay or through Craigslist. We’d drive to Ephrata or even up to the Scranton area. We’d give my mom an excuse and say we were going somewhere else, but then we’d come home with more decorations.”

    Eventually the family ran out of room in their garage for cars.

    Today, in fact, the display is so impressive in size and scope that it was featured this year on an Allentown-area Christmas lights tour sponsored by the Morning Call newspaper. Admirers like to joke that the house has a “split personality,” with small white lights on one side, the way Michael’s teacher mother, Donna, likes it, and dozens of large lighted Santas, reindeer, snowmen and other assorted figures—some nearly a century old—on the other side.

    Michael says he’ll continue the tradition he and his father started, adding to the colorful extravaganza that David called “Candy Lane.”

    In the meantime he plans to keep working at The Lutheran Home at Topton while he’s in high school and considering what college to attend for physical therapy or nursing, possibly with a focus on gerontology.

    “I like working with older people,” Michael says. “I just feel that I have a calling for it.”


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