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Posted on Mon. Dec. 17, 2012 - 12:02 am EDT

Taking in the lights, remembering loved ones

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If you go

What: Fantasy of Lights

Where: Franke Park, 3411 Sherman Blvd.

When: 6 to 9 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 6 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through Dec. 31.

Cost: $5 per car, $10 per 15-passenger van, $25 per bus or trolley

More information: Call 744-6145 or visit

The display is very tall, and very green. The Grinch looms over cars touring the Fantasy of Lights, hands on his hips, his heart growing three sizes.

In front of the display is a sign that reads, “Let your heart grow three times this Christmas! In loving memory of Rachel Ruppert.”

Rachel Ruppert died May 1, 2009. She had Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic disorder that results in a protein build-up in the brain.

Rachel, who was 5 when she died, loved The Fantasy of Lights, a Franke Park event put on by the Anthony Wayne Services Foundation, which helps those with developmental disabilities. When she died, her family, of Fort Wayne, wanted to support the foundation – which provided services for Rachel – and memorialize their daughter, who loved to be read Dr. Seuss books.

“She loved the bright lights,” said Michelle Ruppert, Rachel’s mom. “I used to take her out (of her car seat in the back) and put her in the front. It’s nice after the holidays when people come up and say, ‘We saw your lights.’ ”

Sunday night, the Rupperts – Michelle Ruppert and her husband, Chris; their two sons, Ryan, 12, and Alex, 10, plus Michelle Ruppert’s mother, aunt and a family friend – volunteered at Fantasy of Lights, collecting money and passing out 1,680 mini candy canes.

This is Fantasy of Lights’s 18th year, and it includes nearly 70 lighting displays – Nativity scenes and angels, Santas and nature scenes, snowflakes and gingerbread houses. When it started, Fantasy of Lights had 15 or 20 displays, said Lynne Gilmore, the executive director of the foundation and event organizer.

Each display is sponsored by an individual or, more commonly, a corporation. There are six or seven that memorialize a loved one, the way the Rupperts’ Grinch does. There’s the leg lamp from “A Christmas Story,” an angel with a butterfly in her hands beneath a rainbow, a Santa waving an American flag.

Annually, Fantasy of Lights sees 10,000 carloads, for between 40,000 and 50,000 people, Gilmore said. Saturday night, the event drew 882 carloads, and Gilmore anticipated a similar number Sunday night. Though Fantasy of Lights is to open at 6 p.m., the Rupperts started passing cars through at 5:50 p.m., as some had been lined up for 20 minutes, waiting for the lighting event to start. By 6:30 p.m., the line was stretched onto Sherman Boulevard.

Not all that drove through were cars. As a carriage finished up the 1 1/2 -mile loop around the park, carols could be heard over the clip-clop-clip-clop of the horses’ hooves: Peace on earth and mercy mild. God and sinners reconciled.

Minutes later, as Michelle Ruppert accepted a $5 payment from a minivan, the woman driving paid an additional $5.

“We would like to pay for the car behind us as well. We don’t know them, but whoever comes up here next,” the driver said.

Gilmore pulled Michelle Ruppert aside.

“Use that for someone who looks like they need it,” she says. “Tell them an angel took care of it.”

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