Dec. 11, 2003 You know Christmas can't be far off when you see the oversize "elves" in the bright orange pants climbing ladders in Emancipation Garden to put the final touches on the 12-foot-tall Christmas tree.
"No, that's not right, it goes higher," says Kemo Smalls, one of the prisoners, directing the placement of a green bulb. Smalls is one of the elves on special assignment to Edgar "Baker" Phillips who each year transforms Charlotte Amalie into a brilliantly lighted fairyland. No tree is left uncovered, nothing is ignored. Lights, red bows and green branches surround the gazebo where Gov. Charles W. Turnbull will be greeting youngsters Thursday night at his annual Christmas party. See: "Governor's Parties to Have Music to Party By."
Colorful strings of lights decorate the garden's lignum vitae trees which now sprout lollipops, candy canes, paper angels and brightly colored water bottles disguised as lanterns. They are decorated by school children and enhanced by the elves.
Looking around at their handiwork, Franklin Thomas smiles and says, "It's cool, it's nice."
According to Phillips, only inmates who are clean and in good standing get the Christmas duty. They are on "special assignment," Phillips says. That's a special dispensation from the North Pole as well as the Department of Corrections.
This year Phillips has an all-rookie crew. Usually, Phillips has inmates with more experience. "They're all new — this year it's basic training," he says. And the temporary elves, naturally, call him "Santa." "Hey, Santa, look here is this right?" comes a call from high on the tree. There's a problem placing the smaller balls in with the larger ones. The symmetry is all off, as one of the elves observes. Phillips just shakes his head, "Well, fix it."
While trying to get his helpers to pose for a picture, Phillips departs from his jovial demeanor. "Turn around now," he says to one, "make it look like you're working." He has two women on this year's crew of five. Helping Smalls and Thomas with their chores were three other camera-shy elves: Sharon Dorsett, Franklin Rawlins and Lorraine Quetel.
"The women are better at it," Phillips says, "more coordinated." This is his seventh year on Christmas duty, and it doesn't seem to be wearing on him, and he keeps in touch with at least one of his former helpers. "I heard from 'Whitey' the other day," Phillips says, "he's married now." "Whitey" is Mason Grinell, a three-year Christmas decorating veteran and protege of Phillips. Gov. Turnbull was so impressed with Grinell's decorating skills that he threw him a little party at Government House.
The small cadre of elves will finish up this year's assignments decorating Government House Thursday and then Franklin Roosevelt Park, also called "Education Park," since the Department of Education offices are directly across the street.
After Christmas Phillips returns to his duties as special projects director for the Department of Property and Procurement. The decorating duties are done under direction of the Justice Department, the governor's office, the St. Thomas administrator's office and Property and Procurement.
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