By: Allyson Mitchell – Staff Writer
As the University of Dayton celebrates 50 years of bringing Christmas and local children to campus, friends of the founder of Christmas on Campus, Ellie Kurtz, recount the beginning of the unique tradition and commemorate her legacy.
Eleanor Kurtz was born Feb. 8, 1926 and grew up a few blocks away from UD in a house on Frerick’s Way, said UD English professor and close friend James Farrelly.
“Ellie has been with UD all her life. She had a little window in her room that she could see the campus out of. After graduating from UD, she knew she wanted to work here and she set out to do just that,” Farrelly said.
Kurtz came to UD as the director of student activities in the newly built Kennedy Union in 1963, Farrelly said. That December, Kurtz was upset students wouldn’t get to celebrate Christmas with their friends and UD family, so she got a small group together for Mass and a party before they left for break, he said.
“The day after that small get- together, Ellie talked to a select group of students and staff and challenged them with an idea for a campus-wide event for December 1964. Then it just spiraled incredibly from there,” Farrelly said.
Kurtz added ideas including visits from Santa Claus, Christmas tree contests, a pageant for “A Christmas Story,” and Christmas Off Campus, a student committee dedicated to the event and adopting local children, Farrelly said. Kurtz did not have children, but considered all children her own and gave them a sense of spirit and identity, Farrelly said.
At Kurtz’s request, Farrelly reads “A Christmas Story” every year and directs the pageant at COC.
Kurtz had previously worked with different park services in Dayton and made several connections to people in the city, who she recruited for different activities, said retired UD Dining Services worker Annie Thornton. Thornton provided hot chocolate and cookies for the first COC.
“I knew after the first one it was something we would continue. It represented everything the Marianists stood for,” Thornton said. “Ellie was a woman that I admired. She could take an idea and turn it into something I could never even imagine. I would be grateful to have an ounce of her creativity. That’s just who she was.”
Kurtz’s connections have made a lasting impression in Dayton and people in Dayton regard COC highly, Farrelly said.
“Nobody’s looking for a reward, everybody donates,” Farrelly said of local contributions.
“Ellie was very welcoming. She was really after getting everyone involved. She did whatever she had to do to get people involved and make them happy.”
“Ellie was a role model to me,” Thornton said. “She had an unbelievable vision. When she had an idea, she felt it was her duty within herself to make that idea happen.”
Because of Kurtz, COC is one of the biggest, most participated in events at UD, Farrelly said.
“She immediately made you loyal because you felt appreciated for what you did. COC is something she has given us as a gift that we don’t want to end,” he said.
“When COC comes around, everyone can tell. The spirit on campus is unlike any other day,” Thornton said.
Kurtz died Jan. 16, 2009 after struggling with health problems for several years, Farrelly said.
“Every year since Ellie’s passing, before I start reading, I address the opening to her and hope she’s listening,” Farrelly said. “It’s not the event itself, she told me, but what it does to make you part of the community, to make memories. The 25th anniversary’s theme was ‘Wrapped in Silver.’ I know the memories for the 50th will be wrapped in gold.”