Walter Miraglia enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17. Larry Teichman was in ROTC at the Ohio State University during the height of the Vietnam War. They both served their country and started successful businesses in Northeast Ohio. They both wanted to do more.
This year, their paths are intersecting as both men see their goals come to fruition.
After three years of discussions and designs, Mr. Miraglia has transformed his Berkshire Hills Golf Course in Chester into the 1.25-mile Bethlehem Hills Christmas Light Park that opened for the first time Thanksgiving weekend. A portion of the lights’ proceeds are benefiting Mr. Teichman’s newly formed nonprofit, VALOR Retreat at High Rock, which will offer returning servicemen and servicewomen and their families a tranquil respite and nonclinical therapies on 197 acres in Hocking Hills.
For Mr. Miraglia, 53, of Chester, the Christmas season has always been a religious celebration focused on good will toward man.
Growing up in a big Italian family, he learned the importance of selflessness from his maternal grandfather, John Manfredi, who would invite neighbors, local farmers and fellow St. Helen parishioners to his home every Christmas Eve to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
“The farmers didn’t have money and didn’t do anything special, and he wanted it to be special because it was special to him,” Mr. Miraglia explained. “So he would invite all these people over, and they would never leave empty handed. They always left with packages of food to take home.”
That sense of community remained through his adolescence and only grew stronger during his time in the United States Marine Corps.
“Looking back, it was a very exciting time, and it shaped me into who I am. Work ethic, corporate structure, discipline, problem solving, these are all vital parts of my life today,” he said.
After four years in the Marines, Mr. Miraglia opened up his own bar at age 21 and continued to develop new restaurants. Three years ago, he had the opportunity to purchase Berkshire Hills Golf Course, and immediately saw the possibility of an extravagant light display.
After speaking about it for a year, he acted on it two years ago, enlisting the help of Rodney Nagy, a fellow St. Helen parishioner who had grown up around the Christmas light industry.
“I’ve known him for 10 years, and I come to find out that Rod’s father was one of the original Nela Park lighting guys. From the time he was a small child, he’s been working around Christmas lights as a hobby. He’s very technical and smart, and I call him a mad scientist in the most loving way,” Mr. Miraglia said.
For the past year, Mr. Nagy has been building displays, including a Christmas carnival, candy cane village, an elaborate Nativity scene, a salute to armed forces, toyland and Santa’s workshop. The centerpiece is a house covered in 4,000 lights that Mr. Nagy has programmed to dance in sync with the Christian-based music on their radio station, 99.9 FM.
In total, there are two million LED lights throughout the light park, and the entire construction and set-up cost alone has cost about $800,000. Mr. Miraglia estimates that the ongoing annual costs, including the electric bill, will be in the $250,000 to $300,000 range. While he hopes to recover some of those costs, it was still important to him to find a way to give back to the community, just as his grandfather Manfredi had taught him.
While he was in ROTC at OSU and when he was stationed at Letterkenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania, Mr. Teichman saw how returning Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned from war. While wearing a uniform, he saw the name calling and the egg throwing.
“That really scarred me when I saw how our country treated our returning veterans,” Mr. Teichman, 68, of Waite Hill, said. “Back then, they were drafted. They didn’t necessarily want to go. The government said ‘You’re going,’ and they did what they were told to do, and the country just lambasted them. That’s been in my psyche for 40 years.”
Mr. Teichman continued that he has always had a fondness for veterans and always knew he wanted to do something to ensure they knew that their sacrifices, and the sacrifices made by their families, were acknowledged and appreciated.
Four years ago, he purchased a property in Hocking Hills with the original intent of constructing a cabin for his retirement, but then saw a bigger opportunity.
“I saw how serene it was and I thought, ‘What if I allowed veterans and their families to come and stay at no cost?’ So I started talking about it to a number of people I know, and I was surprised by the amount of support I got for an effort like this to show appreciation to veterans and their families,” Mr. Teichman explained.
And so VALOR Retreat – standing for Veterans Are Loved, Owed and Respected – was born. Two to three months ago, VALOR received its nonprofit status, and Mr. Teichman’s goal is to build three to four cabins and lodges and provide art, music and equine therapies. The property itself will offer veterans 10 miles of hiking trails, fishing and plenty of solitude within 10 minutes of Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave and Cedar Falls.
Mr. Teichman, who is donating the land, estimates that the total cost to build the cabins and make them handicap accessible will be $2 million. Still in their early fundraising stage, Mr. Teichman said that they so far have about $1,000, but by the end of this Christmas season, their bank account will see a bump thanks to Mr. Miraglia.
Early in the development of the Bethlehem Hills Christmas Light Park, Mr. Miraglia knew that he wanted it to bring joy to children and families, but also serve a higher purpose. Meanwhile, Mr. Teichman’s company was looking for a place to hold their annual clambake.
“Penny in our office was responsible for organizing the clambake this year and went to (Mr. Miraglia), and that’s where the initial contact was made, just for having clambakes in the future. So she started talking to him (about VALOR) and found out he was in the Marines, and he was really excited about it,” Mr. Teichman said.
“Each year, I look for things to donate to and VALOR came up,” Mr. Miraglia said. “It was founded to give something back to those who have given so much. It’s a large adjustment for veterans, especially the combat veterans. There’s 20 veterans a day that commit suicide because of PTSD. It’s hard for me to say that. It’s going to do a lot of good. And to me, if you prevent one unnecessary death, you’re doing what God wants you to do. That’s the way I see it.”
According to Mr. Miraglia, all funds from their corporate sponsor House of Lights, as well as a portion of the entry cost will go to VALOR Retreat, the American Cancer Society and Ronald McDonald House of Cleveland.
“I just feel like I’m doing something good,” Mr. Miraglia said. “I want to see the kids. I want to see what it does to them. I know I’m putting my all into it and for me, I get emotional. I equate it to watching Lebron James win the championship in Cleveland and he just fell down. He gave it his all and he won. What a great feeling. I hope I have that feeling.”
Bethlehem Hills Light Park, 9760 Mayfield Road in Chester, is open 5-10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 5-11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays through New Year’s Day. Cost is $25 per car, with a $5 discount for those who say “Merry Christmas.” Admission includes a coupon for $10 off the purchase of a fresh Christmas tree at the onsite North Pole. Call 440-862-4735 or visit bethlehemhilllights.fun for more information including special events updates.
VALOR Retreat is headquartered in Chester. For more information about the nonprofit and to donate, visit www.valorretreat.com.