Valley Voices

How Saint Agnes Medical Center got its Christmas tree

The immense Christmas tree on the front lawn at Saint Agnes Medical Center was a gift from a benevolent donor, Leo P. Michaelides, 36 years ago.
The immense Christmas tree on the front lawn at Saint Agnes Medical Center was a gift from a benevolent donor, Leo P. Michaelides, 36 years ago. Saint Agnes Medical Center

I go down Herndon Avenue almost every day and, especially at night going home, I continue to marvel at the beautiful yellow-orange Christmas tree right in front of Saint Agnes Medical Center.

I began to work at Saint Agnes as its first public relations director in June 1980. I decided that the medical center needed some positive press at the time, and so I was thinking Christmas in June. I went out to meet up with Matt Offen at Valley Decorating and told him I wanted to have the biggest Christmas tree in Fresno for the medical center.

So he came up with a design and a bid and sent it to me. I then went upstairs to the administrator, Sister Gladys Marie, and told her my idea for the biggest tree in Fresno with a candle-lighting ceremony so all could enjoy this magnificent tree. The tree would cost around $17,000.

She congratulated me on my creativity, and then said to go ahead. As I was walking out of her office, she then said, “Bring me a check first!”

Well, not to be discouraged, I went home to visit my parents that night for dinner and my dad, John Sullivan, said that his Greek friend, Leo P. Michaelides, his partner and our neighbor, was having a very good year. I sort of listened and kicked that around in my head and decided to call Leo in the morning.

Next morning, I placed a call to Leo. He was as gracious and kind as he always was, and I explained to him: “Leo, the Sisters need a Christmas tree, so I was wondering if you could help out.” He didn’t waste a minute and said, “Of course, they need a tree, and I would be happy to give them one! How shall I do this for them?”

I took a deep breath and I asked him, “Leo, how would you like to pay for this tree? In one installment this year and one next year?”

Silence!

Then he said, “How big a Christmas tree are you talking about, dear?”

I told him the biggest tree ever in Fresno. He thought for a moment and then he said, “Did your father put you up to this?”

I answered, “No, but I did overhear that you had a pretty good year.”

He laughed and then said, “Forget the installment idea; come over to my office tomorrow, and I will have the entire check ready for you!”

I went over and picked up the check, ran up to Sister Gladys Marie’s office, who couldn’t believe what happened in two days, and then I contacted the head engineer for the medical center. We decided to put it right up the flagpole so all could see it during the Christmas season.

About two years later, Leo was admitted to the telemetry unit around Christmas time, and I made sure his room was facing north toward Herndon Avenue. I went up to see him and I said, “Look, Leo, everyone here at the medical center can share Christmas and see a beautiful shining Christmas tree because of your generosity!”

That was 36 years ago, and it still is like a beacon during the Christmas season. Merry Christmas!

Ann T. Whitehurst of Fresno, the mother of three sons, does case management for National Insurance Companies and is a singer and actress. Write to her at atwhitehurst@att.net.

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