A Christmas “Wishing Tunnel” that has been built annually on Oak Circle Drive in Montrose for 36 years has a bittersweet addition this year.
A new banner hanging on the 15-foot-tall structure adorned with lights and ornaments lets passersby know that it is dedicated to the memory of tunnel creator Russ Wassell and his wife, Patti, who passed away earlier this year. Russ Wassell, who first erected the now-beloved holiday tradition in 1982, passed away in 2014.
“The tunnel is a great way to remember them, and for others to remember them, because they were such an integral part of the community,” said Janie Roach, who has lived in the Sparr Heights neighborhood since the early 1980s.
Roach and other neighbors who wanted to keep the tradition going asked the Wassells’ son and stepdaughter for permission to retrieve pieces of the tunnel from their former residence at 1312 Oak Circle Drive, where the tunnel is still located this year.
“A lot of us feel like a family, and the tunnel really helps to concretize that,” nearby neighbor Lynda Hessick said.
Neighbors first took over the tunnel’s construction in 2011, after Russ Wassell fell from a ladder while installing it in 2009.
Patti Wassell would serve volunteer builders soup and bread while they worked, Hessick said.
In addition to the tunnel, a large red mailbox is located nearby where children — and adults — can drop off letters to Santa.
All letters postmarked by Dec. 19 with a return address will be answered.
Previously helmed by Patti Wassell, Roach said she’s taken over as Santa’s primary letter-responder.
Last year, Santa received nearly 100 letters from the Montrose site, Hessick said.
While the majority of the letters are from children asking for specific presents, Roach said she received some last year from adults who outlined their wishes for the world or the community.
“For me, they were very inspiring,” she said.
During Halloween this year, several trick-or-treaters from outside the immediate neighborhood expressed concerns about the fate of the tunnel in light of Patti Wassell’s passing.
It made Roach realize that the tradition has a life beyond Oak Circle Drive, sometimes touching more than one generation of a family.
In fact, Roach’s daughter Stacie Nevlin, who grew up visiting the tunnel, now takes her 2- and 4-year-old daughters there, she said.
Now, neighbors are focused on restoring the tunnel — which has been reduced to 25 feet from about 50 due to structural wear and tear — to its former glory.
Messick, the neighborhood’s unofficial spokeswoman, has launched a collection fund to buy more PVC pipes to replace pieces that have been damaged over the years, as well as stationery and postage for the letters to Santa.
According to Roach and Messick, Patti’s passing has left a large hole in the tight-knit community that gathers several times a year for events, including a Fourth of July party and progressive dinner.
Four to five times a week, Messick said she would head to Patti Wassell’s house in her pajamas for a morning cup of Joe.
“It’s been a huge loss,” Roach said. “We just keep thinking she’s going to come home.”
With the tunnel up and shimmering nightly, “It makes you feel like a part of them is still here,” she said.