Patrick was the Operations Manager and heart of the Mountain Scout Christmas Tree Sale for over 35 years. Through his dedication and service he helped raise over $3.5 million dollars for over the mountain Boy Scout troops. The following article about Patrick’s long involvement with the Mountain Scout Tree Sale was written by Bob Carlton with al.com and is reprinted here with his kind permission.
By Bob Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick Vacarella, who has been working at the Mountain Scouts Christmas Tree Sales lot in Vestavia Hills since 1987, says he sees some of the same faces year after year. (Bob Carltonemail@example.com)
An Alabama Christmas story that gets better every year
In memory of Patrick Vacarella
Let’s just say Patrick Vacarella wasn’t exactly being a Boy Scout that day back in 1987.
Just as he had done several times before, he wheeled his’79 Trans-Am onto the road next to the Christmas tree lot on U.S. 31 in Vestavia Hills. He revved the engine, and as soon as he knew everybody was watching, he burned rubber on the asphalt, leaving a trail of smoke in his wake.
“I was 16 years old and being a showoff,” an older, wiser Vacarella recalls many years later. “Every time I passed by there and there was a group of people out to see it, I pulled off at the stop sign, hit second gear, smoked the tires and just kept on going -- with a grin from ear to ear on my face.” Except this time, a couple of Vestavia Hills police officers were waiting for him.
Bo Young, who ran the Mountain Scouts Christmas Tree Lot at the time, had gotten wise to Vacarella’s shenanigans, and he came up with a plan to teach him a lesson. “He set up the Vestavia police to come hide around the corner,” Vacarella continues the story. “I got pulled over. First time I’d ever been pulled over for anything.”
The police officers conferred with Young, and they gave the teenage Vacarella two choices. He could either pay a traffic ticket – which would have cost him several hundred bucks -- or he could do his penance helping at the Christmas tree lot for the next few weeks. Vacarella chase the second option, and Young put him to work.
He unloaded trees off the truck and set them up on the lot. He helped customers pick out trees and tied them onto the roofs of their cars. He did whatever needed doing. And the funny thing is, he liked it. He also became good friends with Young’s two sons, Matt and Paul, and started hanging out with them at their house.
So, he came back to the tree lot again the next year. And the next. And the year after that. “It got to a point where it was fun,” Vacarella says. “It seems like every year I was up there, it turned into something else. Every year, I got to do something else until it evolved into me being lot manager.”
And, 34 years after his little car prank, Vacarella is still there. Every Christmas. Year after year.
“Sometimes, I ask myself, due to how long I’ve been in this, if I just shouldn’t have paid the ticket and went on,” he says. Truth is, though, he wouldn’t miss doing this for anything. “You see the same people every year, and they’re like, ‘Well, I knew you would be here when I came; good to see you again,’” Vacarella says. “It’s kind of fun to see everybody every year and they remember you from year to year because you’ve been there for so long.”
‘A way of life’
The Mountain Scouts Christmas Tree Sale began in 1959 in the back yard of Vestavia Hills scoutmaster Jimmy W. Coleman Sr., and in the decades since, it has grown into the main fundraiser for 11 “over-the-mountain” Boy Scout troops in suburban Birmingham. In addition to the Vestavia Hills sale, which takes place on Scout Square in the lot in front of the Walgreens on U.S. 31, the tree sale includes lots at Shades Cahaba Elementary School in Homewood and at the Grove Shopping Center in Hoover.
Last year’s Christmas tree sale raised $163,000, and that money went toward buying equipment, paying for trips and other expenses for the scouts, Mark McColl, the treasurer for the Mountain Scouts Christmas Tree Sale Association, says. Scouts from all of the troops volunteer at the sale.
Although he spends most of his time at the Vestavia Hills lot, Vacarella is the operations manager for all three locations. “Anything that comes up at the other lots, they call Patrick,” McColl says. McColl has worked the annual tree sale with Vacarella for the past 13 years, and although it took him a while, he’s learned there’s more to Vacarella than first meets the eye.
“He comes across as gruff,” McColl says. “He comes across as abrupt. And then you get to know him and you get past that and you find out what a good person he is -- somebody who will give you the shirt off his back (and) who will do anything to make an extra dollar for this tree sale.”
Over the years, Vacarella has used his business contacts to get such local companies as CraneWorks/ RentalWorks, Alabama Rentals and United States Sprinkler to donate thousands of dollars in equipment and supplies needed for the sale, including light towers, generators, forklifts and cranes.
“If we need something,” McColl says, “he will find somebody to donate it.”
The Vestavia Hills lot opens the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year, and it doesn’t close until the last tree is sold. This year, as fast as trees are going, that might be as early as mid-December, Vacarella says.
When they start running low on trees and wreaths, though, Vacarella will drive all over Birmingham looking for more. “If we run out of trees, I will go find more trees,” he says. “Nothing bothers me more than a customer walking up and wanting a Christmas tree and not being able to get it.”
Vacarella, who is the tree sale’s only paid staff member, has worked in sales and owned his own businesses over the years, but every year, he plans his work schedule around his commitment to the tree lot. “I am compensated for doing this, but it’s not about the money because I lose money every year doing this,” he says. “Anytime this time of year comes, if I was working somewhere and I couldn’t get off, I quit,” he adds. “I would find another job after it was over. “That may sound crazy, but the tree sales just became a way of life, and I didn’t know anything else.”
‘A bittersweet time’
There’s another reason working the tree lot means so much to Vacarella, and why he keeps coming back every year. In times of grief, it has been a source of comfort.
On a Wednesday afternoon in December 1991, he stopped by the tree lot after finishing his exams at Bessemer State Technical College. His friend Paul Young -- one of the sons of the scoutmaster who helped the cops catch the lead-footed Vacarella four years before -- met him and told him they needed to go to Vacarella’s house. He didn’t say why.
“We took off and went down the road into Vestavia to Tangle Creek, where my dad had just built a house,” Vacarella remembers. “We turned down Sagewood Road, and there were cars up and down the street, from the entrance to the road all the way down across the private bridge.
“When we made that turn, I said, ‘Somebody’s dead.’ I knew it right off. Nobody was talking. Nobody was saying anything. I knew something was up. I just didn’t know what.”
Earlier that morning, his father, Sam Vacarella, the senior vice president of merchandising for the Birmingham-based Bruno’s supermarket chain, was killed along with four other top Bruno’s executives when their twin-engine Beechcraft BE-400 jet crashed a few minutes after taking off from the Rome, Ga., airport.
All nine passengers -- including Bruno’s chairman Angelo Bruno and his brother, vice chairman Lee Bruno -- died in the crash. They were on the company’s annual Christmas tour of Bruno’s stores around the South.
For then-20-year-old Patrick Vacarella, the Christmas tree lot became his shelter from the pain. “That year, I think I was gone for about three days, but I ended up going back up there because, at that point, it was the only thing that could get my mind off stuff,” he says. “The whole time I went back, it was the only thing that was making me happy, was being up there doing the Christmas tree stuff.”
For someone who goes out of his way to make sure everybody else has a merry Christmas, this time of year is still hard on Vacarella. “Christmas is a bittersweet time for me,” he says. “Yes, I love it, but it can get a little bit depressing. It would be 100 percent more depressing if the tree sale was not operating -- just because of what I dealt with at Christmas.”
For the past several Christmases, Vacarella’s son, Sam, who is named after his late grandfather, has helped his dad at the tree lot. Like his father, Sam does a little of everything, from unloading trees to working the register.
Having his son there with him is special. Especially this time of year.
“I like him being there,” Vacarella says. “It just keeps the Christmas spirit up.”