116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
For decades, people have come by the carload every December to the Beaverdale community of Des Moines to marvel at the outsize twinkling and blinking holiday displays and Christmas lights.
When Dale and Julie Marks moved into the neighborhood three years ago, they were game to join the festivities and decorate their yard and Tudor-style home from curb to chimney with sparkling candy canes, star-topped trees, a Nativity and, of course, lights.
"It was like a dream come true to buy a house here," said Julie Marks, 57. "I've wanted to live here since I first came through with friends to look at the lights 10 years ago."
The holiday spectacle goes beyond good cheer. The Markses put bins at the end of their driveway and ask visitors to donate money and food to the Food Bank of Iowa as they drive past.
Last year, with the help of neighbors, holiday visitors who toured the community's 50 houses gave about $7,500 and 1,500 pounds of food, Julie Marks said.
"With so many people hurting out there, we like to use our Christmas lights as an opportunity to make a difference," she said, adding that she helped collect donations while her husband did most of the outside decorating last year.
They planned to do the same this year, but in September, the couple were hit by health crises. Dale Marks, 68, suffered two strokes and a heart attack after he and his wife became ill with COVID-19, she said.
She recovered with no complications, but he was hospitalized for nearly a month, she said. When Dale Marks came home Nov. 2 to finish his recovery, he was too weak to haul boxes from the garage and climb a ladder to string lights around the house and trees. She was too busy with his care to take on the job.
"We thought that ours would be the only dark house in the neighborhood this year," she said. "We were feeling really sad about it."
But shortly after she brought her husband home from the hospital, she got a phone call from someone she did not know.
Bob Coffey, a Des Moines contractor who goes by the nickname "Bob the Builder," heard about the couple's situation and decided to help. He hadn't met the Markses, but he heard about them from a friend, and he'd always loved the lights in the neighborhood, which are well-known in the area.
"I grew up just 3 miles from where Dale and Julie live," Coffey said. "When I was a kid, my parents would take me and my siblings to see the lights in their neighborhood every year."
Now married with a family of his own, Coffey continues the tradition. Last year, he loaded a bus with 24 family members and friends and drove around the neighborhood to gaze at the holiday lighting and sing Christmas carols.
"When I learned they could use some help, I knew I wouldn't have a problem getting a volunteer crew together," said Coffey, 56. "I called Julie and told her I'd love to put up their lights."
On Nov. 15, Coffey gathered four employees together after work and they headed over to the Markses' home. They brought ladders, drills, duct tape and zip ties with them — and it took the five of them about three hours to complete the job.
"It was incredible that they'd do this for us — I wanted to cry," said Julie Marks, who recently retired from running an in-home day care center.
"I've been so overwhelmed with Dale's care that I knew there was no way we'd ever get those lights up by ourselves," she said, adding that visitors start coming early in December, so neighbors usually have their displays ready by the first weekend of the month.
Dale Marks, a retired soybean plant safety supervisor, uses oxygen at home and has difficulty speaking because one of his vocal cords is paralyzed, she said.
"After all he went through, he has a long road ahead, but he's slowly making progress," she said. "I was really afraid we were going to lose him."
In late Sept., Dale had the first of two strokes brought on by complications from the disease caused by the coronavirus, she said. Then a few weeks after that, he had a heart attack.
"Now that he's home, he's starting to get around without his walker, but I'm still helping to get him dressed and bathed," Julie said. "He's exhausted from all of the surgeries."
When Dale Marks learned that Coffey and his team were going to handle the decorations, he gratefully sat on the front porch to watch them work, he said in a text to the Washington Post.
"I was totally unsure as to how I was going to pull it off all the while I was in the hospital," he said. "As I sat out and watched, I was in tears watching Bob and his whole crew finish our lights. He's truly a person near to my heart."
Coffey said he and his employees were more than happy to do it.
Everyone laughed, he said, when at the end of the day, he plugged two cords together like Clark Griswold in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" and lit up the display.
"The memory of that afternoon will last a lifetime," he said, explaining that seeing Dale and Julie Marks watching from the porch made it all worthwhile.
The Christmas Light Tour Food Drive will open this year on Saturday and continue on several evenings through Christmas Eve.
"It's important in life to pay it forward," Coffey said. "If everyone did something, think how that would add up."