In 1979, Allen and Phyllis Curtis took his parents to watch an Oak Ridge Boys concert at what was then called the Holiday Star Theatre.
The special occasion at Northwest Indiana's new venue in its inaugural year was to celebrate his parents' 60th wedding anniversary. The foursome had a great time listening to a country music group that would go on to perform a holiday season concert every year since, including one earlier this month, at the Star Plaza.
Allen and Phyllis' son, Robert Curtis, who was just 11 at the time, never forgot his parents' gesture to commemorate a special milestone in their family's history. He tucked it away in his memory vault as the years were peeled away from the family's wall calendars.
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On New Year's Eve in 1966, Allen and Phyllis Curtis got married in a quiet, simple ceremony at a minister's home in Rensselaer. The couple first met at a now closed bowling alley in Shelby, located due south of Lowell.
Coincidentally, that tiny dot on a map is where Whiteco Industries, owner of the Holiday Star Theatre, began its advertising operations decades ago.
The company first planted billboards in that agricultural hamlet before blossoming with other business ventures throughout the state, most notably at the intersection of U.S. 30 and Interstate 65.
That's where its most visible sign still flashes outside the Star Plaza Theatre, where Allen and Phyllis Curtis occasionally attended shows from their Roselawn home.
Phyllis Curtis was raised on a Roselawn farm with no electricity or indoor plumbing, she said. She recalls waking up at 4 a.m. each day to milk the family's cows and to do her chores before going to school.
These days, Phyllis and Allen, both 73, live with their 48-year-old son, Robert. He paints a somber portrait of his parents' home life in their twilight years.
"We have always been a poor family," Robert told me earlier this month.
That sentence has stayed with me since I first heard it. In fact, I don't think I've ever been told that line during my 20 years in the newspaper business.
"My parents live on a very limited fixed income," Robert said, noting that he hasn't worked since June.
Both of his parents have a pacemaker and a defibrillator implanted in their chests, I later learned.
"My dad is diabetic and his vision is starting to fail," Robert said. "He takes insulin three times a day and he hasn't had any feeling in his feet for years. He just mopes around, feeling useless and wishing that we would have just let him die years ago when he had his heart attack."
Again, this line rang true to me. I've heard similar comments from countless readers with elderly parents who struggle with older age and chronic health issues.
When Robert was born on Jan. 3, 1968, his birth was heralded with public fanfare as the town's first baby born that year. His parents received gifts from different shops in the town, and a story was written in the local newspaper.
I can only imagine the couple's excitement at that moment, and their dreams for their first child.
Allen and Phyllis, both divorcees before they married each other, had two more children while living in Fargo, N.D., relocating there for Allen's job. Through the years, they raised their kids, who moved out of state, except for Robert, who helps care for them today.
The couple's 50th wedding anniversary is Saturday, on New Year's Eve, and Robert wondered about a possible gift for his parents for their special day.
"I'm curious if you had any ideas for anything relatively inexpensive to make this anniversary a night they will never forget," he asked me.
He asked me this before Christmas, when I'm typically inundated with various requests to help needy Northwest Indiana residents. Or to make their holidays a bit more memorable.
This is the first year in a decade that I didn't host my annual Holiday Elf Fund, which accepts donations from readers for others who could use a financial lift for Christmas. The donations simply didn't come in this past month, forcing me to tell at least a couple dozen readers that I couldn't help them this holiday season.
I told Robert Curtis the same thing.
Fortunately, he had an idea already in the works.
On Thanksgiving Day, he took his parents to his sister's home for dinner. There, the siblings called their brother on FaceTime so, together, they could reveal their wedding anniversary gift to their parents – a pair of concert tickets to one of their favorite country music groups.
Not just any group. Not just any venue. Not just any time of the year.
The siblings bought their parents tickets to see the Oak Ridge Boys at the Star Plaza Theatre for their Dec. 18 performance, the band's annual Christmas Celebration Tour. This was the group's first tour as Country Music Hall of Fame inductees.
Accompanied by Robert, they arrived extra early for the afternoon show to make sure they got there in time with no worries. The weather outside was cold. The atmosphere inside was warm and nostalgic.
"It was wonderful," Phyllis said afterward, buying a concert T-shirt and a Christmas ornament. "It also brought back great memories of the band's 1979 concert with my in-laws."
Her husband's health woes went away, if only for a few hours, their son said.
In early November, White Lodging announced to cheers across this area that its officials changed their mind about closing the Star Plaza. After hearing public outcry about the venue's demise, the company said it will not be torn down.
After the news broke, the Oak Ridge Boys tweeted: "It seems that the Star Plaza will not close down after all... but will remain open... YAY #tradition."
Yay, tradition, not only for the band and Star Plaza, but also for fans whose milestones mean much more than merely another holiday show. This is just as true in 2016 as it was in 1979.
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