A Tribute to Harry Overly

A Tribute to Harry Overly

Harry Overly, founder of holiday light display, dies at 68.

by Cindy Ekas-Brown, Herald-Standard Staff Writer

Harry Overly, who was well-known throughout western Pennsylvania for his annual Christmas light display, will be remembered as someone who touched many lives.

The 68-year-old Armbrust man died Monday afternoon at Westmoreland Regional Hospital in Greensburg. He had been battling leukemia for more than a year.

"Harry Overly touched more lives than he realized," said his friend Jack Wilkinson, owner of Wilkinson's Nursery in Armbrust.

"I think the timing of Harry's death is interesting because this time of the year was the most exciting for him because of his Christmas light display," Wilkinson said.

"When my little granddaughter found out that Harry died, she said, 'He will be lighting up the stars in heaven,'" he said.

Stephanie Tomasic, executive director of Overly's Country Christmas, said she was devastated when she learned that Overly had died.Tomasic, who had volunteered at Overly's Country Christmas since 1983, began working as partners with Overly about five years ago.

"I want to first tell you what Harry meant to me," Tomasic said. "He was my friend, my mentor, my partner, my confidant and sometimes even my father."

In business, he was a perfectionist who demanded 110 percent out of everyone, and he got it," Tomasic added. "He was a visionary with a great warm heart. He meant everything to me. I'm really going to miss him."

Tomasic said the last five years that she spent working closely with Overly on the Christmas light display have been "the best years of my life."

Since Overly's death, Tomasic said she has been asked if the Christmas lights will be shut off as a tribute to Overly.

"We will absolutely not turn off the lights," Tomasic said. "The greatest tribute to Harry Overly would be for us to keep the Christmas lights on. The greatest tribute anyone can pay to Harry Overly is to come out and see the lights." Despite Overly's death, Tomasic said the Christmas light display will continue in the future.

"In 1994, Harry Overly created the Overly Charitable Foundation to continue his vision and to ensure that this would continue when he could no longer do it," she said. "We have a fine board of directors that will take over. I would like to think that Harry Overly has taught me well enough to continue."

"Harry Overly might not be physically here with me, but he is still here with me in spirit," Tomasic added.

Wilkinson said Overly, whom he described as a self-made businessman, will be greatly missed by the community.

"Harry Overly had a magnetic personality," Wilkinson said. "He sure came a long way in life, but he never had any formal education. I think he finished eighth grade, but he didn't even go to high school. He was a self-taught and hands-on guy."

Wilkinson said he and Overly grew up together about one-half mile apart in the close-knit Westmoreland County community.

"I had known Harry Overly all of my life," Wilkinson said. "When I was a little kid, Harry was a big kid."

"Some of the kids were jealous of Harry because he always had a couple of dollars in his pocket," he added. "When Harry was 18 years old, he started a garbage collection route with a pickup truck. Harry then bought a dump truck and then a compactor."

A self-made businessman, Overly first approached Greengate Mall ownership for a contract to haul garbage and maintain the grounds.

Overly steadily rose through the ranks of the Rouse Corporation which owned the site. Eventually, he became mall manager and later, a corporate consultant nationwide.

Overly was well-known throughout western Pennsylvania for his annual Christmas light display, which began decades ago at this Armbrust home. The display was later moved to Idlewild Park near Ligonier and then to the Westmoreland Fairgrounds near Norvelt.

"Harry Overly was an organizer and a motivator," Wilkinson said. "He had hundreds of volunteers who helped him every year with the light display. He raised thousands of dollars to benefit hospitalized pediatric patients and other charities."

Because of his involvement in the light display, Overly was known as Santa Claus at the local restaurants where he frequented, Wilkinson said.

"Harry was just a character. He sure had come a long way in his life," Wilkinson said. For about two months, Overly had been a patient at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. His leukemia was thought to be in remission, and Overly asked the doctors if he could come home for Christmas.

"Harry came home about two weeks ago because he wanted to spend time with his family during the holidays," Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson and Overly went out to dinner together on Friday night. The next day, Overly visited Wilkinson at his nursery. Overly attended church services on Sunday morning at Armbrust Wesleyan Church where both men were members.

"After church on Sunday, Harry Overly went out to breakfast with his sisters in New Stanton," Wilkinson said. "He seemed to be doing fine. He was having a difficult time Sunday night, and the ambulance came to the house. He died the next day.

"Harry is definitely going to be missed by the community," he added.

Reproduced with permission from the Herald-Standard, December 1998.