News

Canceled Watch Night Ends 2020 With a Whimper

THEre won’t be the PARTY downtown like there has been during Watch Nights in years past, such as this scene that rang in 2019. The lack of a celebration is another reminder of the absence of chief organizer Barb Cram, who died in June. (Photo: J. Michael Whalen)

A Barb Cram-sized hole will be especially felt as the annual Watch Night New Year’s Eve celebration was called off due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Cram, who was somewhat of a volunteer folk hero in the City before she died in June, was the maven behind the free event each year. But one of Watch Night’s staple organizers, Keith Thurston, announced they would not go through with their year-end festivities in mid-December.

“The annual Watch Night Falls Church celebration will not occur this year in deference to our front-line health care workers, who are risking all, and asking us to not create a super-spreader Covid-19 event,” Thurston wrote. “With an occasion such as our public New Year’s Eve celebration, with no entry gates it is very difficult to have a limited event, and reduced attendance, as much as we would have liked that.

This will be the first time in the event’s 22-year history that it will not be taking place for Falls Church residents and regional neighbors to join in the fun.

According to Shaun Van Steyn, another event volunteer and member of Falls Church Arts, this was something that was predicted as far back as the spring.

Van Steyn said that in his private conversations with Cram, she knew her worsening health was terminal well in advance. Still, the two talked about the news of the rapidly spreading coronavirus in February — not even two months after the previous Watch Night had been pulled off — and decided that they would be in wait-and-see mode about how to handle the celebration.

When Cram did pass, Van Steyn said that Falls Church Arts had already decided that their involvement would be too much to handle at that time. Considering that so many people come from all over the Northern Virginia area to attend the event, it was deemed too big of a legal risk for all the organizers involved.

“We could’ve put it on, but supposing we did do it, and then we get a whole bunch of people getting [sick], then they’re going to sue the City or Falls Church Arts. Someone will get sued; we’re in America,” Van Steyn said.

The volunteers never seriously considered doing the event virtually either, Van Steyn said. He went on to say that it would have been too time-consuming and a huge challenge technically, but wasn’t sure how the event would translate in that format.

converting parts of watch night into a virtual format was briefly debated by volunteers organizers, but they felt the event wouldn’t translate well. (Photo: J. Michael Whalen)

Cram’s death compounds the sadness of the event for longtime City of Falls Church Superintendent of Public Works, Robert Goff. The News-Press reported last year that 2021’s Watch Night was going to be Goff’s last, so he was going to use the event this year to gauge how his successors would pull off its set up.

Now, Goff mourns the fact that he and all the other attendees won’t be able to remember Cram during the marquee night.

“I’m disappointed because we really wanted to celebrate the life of Barb Cram,” Goff said. “What [the public works department] was going to do was have a banner made. And hopefully, we were going to have it hanging below the Watch Night star, but unfortunately that didn’t work out.”

Even with the cancellation, Goff said that he had his team do several dry runs on their side of the Watch Night preparations. To him, the hardest part is squaring away all the logistics — making sure road closures, such as the major artery in Route 7, are done in accordance with the Virginia Department of Transportation’s standards, as well as hauling all the equipment and hooking up the electricity into the event’s downtown site is done in a safe and efficient manner.

Planning for the event starts weeks in advance, and Goff enjoys watching his crew prepare for an occasion of that scale by using the patchwork of skills they pick up on other jobs around the City.

But outside of his on-the-job excitement, he also takes a lot of joy in seeing how much his old teachers, such as Lindy Hockenberry and Harry Shovlin, adore Watch Night.

“I like to see teachers that taught me throughout my high school and see the appreciation that they have that we’re out there on our time, away from our families, to make the event happen,” Goff said.

What’s next for Goff? When the News-Press got ahold of him, he was en route to meet the builders of his new home in Delaware just 15 minutes away from the beach.

He’ll retire in just under six months — or five months and 29 days to be exact. But it’s not like he’s keeping track.