Legends of the Umpqua: Kerwin Doughton

Let There Be Lights

Story by Dick Baltus Photos by Tristin Godsey

Kerwin Doughton claims the 26 years he has devoted to starting and leading the Umpqua Valley Festival of Lights have been about ego gratification, and maybe in at least one sense his commitment to the Roseburg event is.

It certainly has become one of the, if not the, area’s favorite holiday traditions. And whose ego would not be gratified making some 30,000 children and adults smile and share quality family time each year?

But Doughton’s ego wasn’t getting stroked much back in 1993 when, as president of the “noon” Roseburg Rotary Club, he was trying to sell the idea to raise money for scholarships to his and two other local Rotary clubs. Ultimately, when only the noon club bought in, Doughton decided he’d make it work — somehow.

“It was not an easy sell,” says Doughton’s good friend and fellow Rotarian, Lew Marks. “But he stuck to his vision until the club got behind him.”

Boy did the club get behind Doughton, draining its coffers of $65,000 to get the project started. The low-key Rotarian would need to almost double that to get the event off the ground, then raise another $120,000 (including event revenue) in each succeeding year to buy new displays, replace lights, pay the electric bill and cover other expenses.

Festival displays feature some 500,000 lights, many of which have to be replaced on an annual basis.

Festival displays feature some 500,000 lights, many of which have to be replaced on an annual basis.

But under Doughton’s guidance, the festival would be debt-free after four years and be providing between $12,000 and $15,000 in yearly scholarships to youngsters pursuing college educations or non-traditional adult students returning to school at Umpqua Community College.

As the Festival of Lights celebrates its 26th year in 2018, Doughton, his club, event sponsors and the hundreds of volunteers who have donated their time can point with pride to the approximately $260,000 in scholarships their efforts have helped fund.

If that doesn’t make an ego feel all warm and fuzzy, somebody needs to check its pulse.

While raising money for scholarships was Doughton’s primary vision, his secondary goal was to “create a holiday event that would become a local tradition, a place to enjoy with the family year after year.”

Consider that mission accomplished, too. While many other communities have tried to run similar events, few have had the staying power of Doughton’s creation. The secret, he says, is continuing to add displays and features that give attendees another reason to return year after year.

To this end, early on Doughton worked a deal with Eugene Ballet to bring its Nutcracker production to Jacoby Auditorium at UCC as a complementary fund-raiser for the festival. The production, which incorporates local ballet students, reliably sells out each year.

With the help of his niece, an employee in Disney’s marketing department, he earned rare permission to add a display featuring a character from the movie Frozen. He’s expanded activities in the festival’s holiday village, added a horse-drawn carriage and spent $25,000 to bring in the world’s tallest nutcracker, whose appearance resulted in a 20 percent bump in attendance even though, Doughton says smiling,

“He’s a little gruff. We may have to do something about his face.”

“Kerwin is an example of the power of one,” says Marks. “Yes, many others have helped and worked to make his vision a success, but we all followed him. This would not have happened without his leadership, work and dedication.”

While not downplaying his role, Doughton defers credit whenever he can — to retired electrician Jack Reilly, who maintains the displays and has led the effort to put them up and take them down for 20 years—to his committee, the county, all the volunteers.

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Clearly, it is a labor of love, and not all in service to his ego. But there is that.

“I was raised here, went off to Oregon State University, then came back and built an investment management company,” he says.

“We all want to give back something to our community. To me, it’s just been a thrill seeing how much people like this, watching it grow, seeing people want to be part of it and helping make people happy.”

Adds Marks: “If you volunteer at Festival of Lights, you see how happy it makes people going through it when they thank you. How great is that – to have a fund-raiser at Christmas that makes people that happy, then you get to provide scholarships to some of the same children who have attended the event for years?”

The Festival of Lights is clearly an event that’s good for lots of souls, and at least one ego.


Nightly through Jan. 1, 2019

5:30 – 9 p.m., Sunday – Thursday

5:30 – 10 p.m., Friday – Saturday

River Forks Park, 6 miles west of Roseburg

$10 per car

Santa appears at Holiday Village Thursday – Sunday, 5:30 – 9 p.m. Admission is free.