It’s been a Blue Christmas season this year for the many Lufkinites who miss seeing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumping Unit at his customary post in the Lufkin Mall parking lot.
The pumping unit has, for decades, embodied a source of pride for the city: Lufkin Industries was one of the nation’s largest and oldest pumping unit manufacturers. For many East Texans, the holiday season really begins with Rudolph’s lighting. That’s why so many East Texans are upset about the change in location: It’s yet another reminder of the pain that problems in the oil and gas industry and GE have brought to East Texas.
As far as we’re concerned, Rudolph would be about as visible from the Island of Misfit Toys as he is at his current digs in front of the Lufkin Municipal Courthouse on Shepherd Avenue.
Simply put: Unless you’re paying your water bill or a speeding ticket, nobody travels that way. And unless you’re at the intersection, he really isn’t viewable from First Street, so patrons enjoying most of our revitalized shops, eateries and The Pines Theater in the downtown area nearby can’t see him either.
Meanwhile the mall, on the other hand, sits on the most prime piece of real estate in Lufkin: the corner of Loop 287 and U.S. Highway 59. You couldn’t miss him there if you were blindfolded.
And that’s what bothers us about his new location. We don’t mind him being downtown. In fact, that’s where he started, at the back entrance to the machine shop visible from Raguet and Angelina Streets, according to East Texas historian Bob Bowman. And members of Generation X grew up with Rudolph at the corner of Pershing and Feagin, a high-traffic area where west side kids got to see him every day while he was visible to everybody else anytime they drove by.
While Rudolph’s size and location have changed over the years — at one point in the 1990s, Rudolph was no more than 6 feet tall and was placed at the UPS site on Highway 59, while for many years during the ’80s, he was stationed in the then-Angelina Mall parking lot across from Lufkin Mall — visibility was never an issue.
To view Rudolph now, you have to go out of your way and navigate one-way streets in an unfamiliar part of town. It truly makes no sense — not for downtown, not for anybody.
The story circulating around town that it was simply too expensive to have him at the mall is hogwash. In fact, Lufkin Mall general manager Mike Welborn said they never charged a fee for Rudolph to post up in their parking lot, and that everything done to support him was donated.
“If they decide in the future they want to come back, we’d welcome them back,” Welborn said.
And why wouldn’t they? Just think of the foot traffic such a must-see Christmas symbol drove to their doors.
“The decision to move Rudolph was above and beyond the city of Lufkin and decided before the city was involved,” assistant city manager Jason Arnold said in an Aug. 28 article in The Lufkin Daily News. “(General Electric) approached us, looking to move downtown. We are not sure if there were other options or considerations.”
Baker Hughes (a GE company) was contacted for comment, but they did not respond.
To celebrate Rudolph’s 50th anniversary in 2016, GE invited current and all former employees to sign a piece of the iconic pumping unit. We know it was meant to be a nice gesture, but it came across, at best, as inconsiderate and, at worst, insulting. At the time we wondered just how tone-deaf Lufkin Industries’ owners were.
We’ve got somewhat of an idea now.
A petition to return Rudolph to the mall had generated close to 3,000 signatures at press time Friday (https://bit.ly/2sULcL8). But Rudolph is owned by Baker Hughes, not the city. Only Baker Hughes can decide what to do with its property.
And while the move downtown might ultimately prove to be worthwhile, it will only be through a cooperative effort, such as the one involving the businesses that have teamed up to create the Operation: Reindeer Games scavenger hunt to give the families who do visit Rudolph at his new home something to do. And speaking of cooperative effort, it wouldn’t hurt the community to get together on the scheduling of some of these Christmas events so that we don’t have what we had this year: the bulk of the Christmas in the Pines events, the Huntington Christmas Parade, the Diboll Christmas Festival, An Evening in Old Bethlehem and the Manning Christmas Festival & Lighting of the Mansion all on the same day.
Again, we’re thankful that Baker Hughes has taken the time and great expense to erect Rudolph again this year. We would like, however, for the company to consider donating Rudolph and Santa’s trailer (another extinct Lufkin Industries product) to the city of Lufkin to ensure that the tradition stays alive. If it’s too big a job for the city to handle, perhaps one of the other companies that has arisen since Lufkin Industries became a shell of its former self can assist with the process each year.
We really want to be able to continue to take our own families to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumping Unit lightings, whether Baker Hughes is involved or not. But from the 2016 signing gesture to the head-scratching hiding of the holiday icon this year, it just seems like we won’t be able to properly pay tribute to the blue-collar workers who produced so many pumping jacks in Lufkin until the company that came in and shuttered the foundry is no longer involved.