Herd Media
Walt Leaver

Looking back on Lighting of the Green with Walt Leaver

This year, Walt Leaver announced he would be retiring from his position with Lipscomb. Walt Leaver has been one of the cornerstone pieces of many Lipscomb events, but one chief among these is the Lighting of the Green. He is heavily responsible for the creation of the Lighting and has been involved in every one since the first one in 2005. In an interview with Herd Media after this year’s Lighting, he walked down memory lane, talking about past Lightings, the event’s inception, and his memories.

We had a desire to plan some kind of a thank you event for the Lipscomb family and kind of get people in the Christmas spirit, and so we thought about having an old neighborhood tree lighting.

Walt Leaver

“We thought of something like in the Hallmark movies, where all the people count down and light the tree, with the crowds milling around.” Walt Leaver said, “But we said, well, we’d like to have some entertainment [too]. We envisioned something where people would serve hot chocolate and cookies, and welcome the neighborhood, welcome the Lipscomb family. And so we did it.”

The first Lighting of the Green was held in 2005 on the Monday after Thanksgiving. The entertainment featured a well-known singer with a special connection.

“We set up a stage out in front of the Burton Health Sciences Center, facing Belmont Boulevard. And so that whole quad, all that grassy area was available to have people stand or put their chairs down there and listen.” Leaver smiled, remembering. “Amy Grant was the only one [to sing that year] besides the choruses. And the Burton Health Sciences Center… it’s named for AM Burton… who’s Amy Grant’s great-grandfather. So she was proud to be on a stage in front of the building that was named for her great-grandfather. It was the first time that she’d ever performed on this campus.”

“Then she came the second year, and then the third year, and she hasn’t missed a single year. And we’ve never paid her a dime. She’s come as a gift to Lipscomb. It costs us to do the lights and the staging, but we don’t charge people to come and Amy doesn’t charge us for her time…She’s [also] been very involved in planning it. She loves it.” Leaver added with a smile.

Walt Leaver is a wealth of stories. As the event evolved, its location changed as well.

“Then, for year number three, we had to find another location because they were renovating Burton to turn it into a pharmacy school. Every part of the building was under renovation, including the alumni auditorium. And they put the building on geothermal, which [requires burying] the pipes underground, to provide the heating and air conditioning for Burton. And they did that in the quad field, so we realized that we were going to get to Christmas and not have any place to do [the Lighting].”

“We thought we would find another location for one year, and then we would move back to [in front of Burton]. We thought about it, and we came over to the bell tower… moved over there, and tried that. [None of us were] sure if it would work or not. Well, Amy liked it so much better because you have kind of a closed in area with those buildings all around, and… the music kind of stays there [in the alley] and she really likes [that] area. So we never even thought about moving back over [to in front of Burton].”

We stayed over [at the bell tower] and it’s always been the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving. And Amy is the one who usually decides who she wants to invite and she’ll ask her friends to come. And we haven’t paid a single artist. We didn’t pay Michael W. Smith, we didn’t pay CeCe Winans. They come as a gift to Amy and she gives it as a gift to us.”

Walt Leaver

When asked about reaching out to Amy Grant that first year, Leaver smiled again. “Well, [when we were planning it all] we were thinking, well, we’ve got student groups, and we could let the student groups sing whatever. And somebody said, well, it’d be great if we could get a star, somebody that really would be well known and could draw a crowd. And [Amy Grant] is probably one of the most well-known Christmas song singers. She’s kind of the queen of Christmas. And I have had the privilege of knowing her and her family for many years, and so we asked her just kind of hoping that she’d say, ‘oh I’d love to do that.’ And she said yes. We really couldn’t believe it. But she said yes, and she came and sang. And her mom and dad were alive then, and they came, and it was just special. It was so special.”

“She came that first year, but we didn’t know if she would come back. So we asked her, and she came back the next year. Every year we would worry that, oh man, suppose she can’t do it. But finally, about five years into it, her manager said that Amy had told him to put [the Lighting] on her calendar from now on. Cause she loves it. So we were, and are, very fortunate. And we’re very thankful.’

Through the years, even with other commitments, Amy Grant has never missed a year.

“[T]hey started the Christmas at the Ryman, where she performs, and she’s there for twelve shows between now and Christmas. And back when they first started that, six years ago, eight years ago, something like that, we thought that we were probably going to have to stop the Lighting of the Green, her being at the Ryman. [We were worried] that people wouldn’t want to go to the Ryman because they could just come here and hear her for free, [which] would compete. But Amy said no, we’re going to do this too. And she has never, ever stopped doing [the Lighting]. This year, she drove all the way here from South Carolina in a day to do it for us.”

When asked what his favorite thing about the Lighting was, Leaver said it had to be how much it blessed the Lipscomb community. “I love seeing everybody,” he said. “I love the exposure that it gives our student groups, from the middle school all the way up through the gospel choir. It exposes our students to thousands of people, which I think is great. And it allows us to see neighbors… they don’t know much about Lipscomb, but they come to this, and they enjoy being here. It helps us create a good relationship with the neighborhood, which is what we’re trying to do. It also helps to showcase things that really make people say, hey, [they’re] doing some good things over there… It gives us an ability to provide a fun night for people, and I think that now it’s kind of a tradition for a lot of people. They come every year to the Lighting of the Green, they don’t want to miss it.”

Leaver also shared some moments he loved and wants to bring back. “We used to have people dressed up like characters from Dickens A Christmas Carol, handing out free cookies and hot chocolate. We did that for years, but had to stop that at Covid. The ones that dressed up were members of our theater department. At one point in time for a couple years we had a storefront that was set up behind Johnson Hall. It looked like a city, a kind of street scene. And where you were walking on the sidewalk you would see the windows, and they would hand out the cookies and hot chocolate through the windows.”

“The Social Clubs would also decorate Christmas trees, and then they were judged on them. Then they would take the trees to families that didn’t have them, couldn’t afford them. That was always fun, that was a good memory for me.”

He also shared things he loved about the Lighting that still happened. “We have Santa and Mrs. Claus and they do free photos, for kids who want to tell Santa what to bring them. And that’s always gone really well. [There’s also] the Merry Marketplace, which is fairly new, but it’s been good.”

When asked whether or not he would continue to come to the Lighting of the Green, even after his retirement at the end of this year, Walt Leaver laughed, “Oh yes. Yes, I wouldn’t miss it. It’ll be a highlight of the year. I love Lipscomb, and I love the people here. Always will. It’ll be a highlight.”

The Lighting of the Green has run for eighteen years now, and besides always featuring Amy Grant, the past years have also featured amazing performers such as Michael W. Smith, Danny Gokey, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ashley Cleveland, Ben Rector, Cody Fry, Mandisa, Steven Curtis Chapman, the Arcadian Wild, Matt Maher, CeCe Winans, and many more. All of these artists have come as a gift to Amy Grant and to Lipscomb, not charging the school anything. And while they’ve been giving of their time and their talents, they’ve been helping to create one of Lipscomb’s best traditions, one that will hopefully continue for many years into the future. It has continued despite storms, building renovations, pouring rain, even tornado watches one year. Lighting of the Green brings families together. It brings students together. It ushers in the Christmas season. It is a tradition, one that will continue for many more years.