The lighting of the community Christmas tree is a beloved annual local tradition, but rarely comes with any surprises, outside of the occasional technical difficulty.

However, the tree wasn’t the only item of illumination to come from Thursday’s ceremony on the Fountain Square, as outgoing Pulaski County Judge-Executive Steve Kelley announced he would be continuing his career in government — in Maryland.

In giving his scheduled comments as the head of county government, alongside Somerset Mayor Alan Keck representing the city, Kelley told the crowd assembled around the tree that he planned on taking the position of Director of Economic Development in Garrett County, Maryland, a small, rural county located close to the state’s western border with West Virginia.

Kelley observed that it was a role similar to SPEDA here in Pulaski County, though is directly a government position. He would be going there following his current term as judge-executive, at the start of 2023.

“It’s a good offer I couldn’t refuse, and I needed to keep working,” Kelley told the Commonwealth Journal. “I enjoy economic development, that’s where my heart was, and (I had a role in) creating SPEDA, so that’s what I’ve been passionate about for the last eight years and it’s a good fit for me.”

A Pulaski native, Kelley was elected to the office of judge-executive in 2014 and spent two terms there before being defeated by Marshall Todd in last May’s Primary Election. Before that, Kelley served on the Somerset City Council, and has also had a role with the SPEDA economic development organization as judge-executive.

“They were looking for somebody who could do what we’ve done here in Pulaski County up there,” said Kelley. “I hope that we’ve done enough here to get the momentum going that it will be good for a while, and hopefully I can make a difference there as well. ... (Pulaski) is home. It’s definitely the county that I love, but I’ve got to keep working. I’m not ready to quit.”

Kelley had a more Christmasy message for the crowd as well, thanking the community for allowing him to serve as judge-executive for eight years, “a childhood dream come true,” and announcing that Christmas is his favorite time of year.

“I love to see all the people out shopping and all the smiles and all the cheer and love that’s being spread this time of year,” he said. “I love the parade that’s coming up on Saturday, and I get to see all the faces of these young boys and girls light up as they see the candy being thrown and the floats coming down the street and all the lights that are lit up, and when they see Santa Claus riding on that final float, they just get so excited. It’s a wonderful time of year.”

He also urged people to remember the birth of Jesus Christ as being the true reason behind the Christmas season, a message he has made a point of sharing every year he’s taken part in the tree ceremony.

“It’s kind of sad to know this will be my last Christmas tree lighting,” Kelley told the Commonwealth Journal. “At the same time, I’m excited for our county and I know that we’re well ahead of where we were eight years ago, and the future looks bright for Pulaski County.”

Keck is also looking ahead to the future, having recently announced his candidacy for the Kentucky governor’s race in the coming year. For Thursday, however, he was focused on Somerset and the recognition of Christmas in the town that he serves as mayor.

“It’s special to get to come down here with my family and light up the tree,” Keck told the Commonwealth Journal. “Christmas is all about hope and a new beginning, and for me, the story ends in salvation. It’s also a night where we get to celebrate community. I think any time we can gather together as kindred spirits, that’s a win. To get to do it to celebrate Christmas is even more special.

“I love my community, I love Somerset, I love so many of our traditions. From this event, to Christmas Eve service at my church, to the homecoming parade with the Briar Jumpers,” he added. “It’s certainly a time for me to pause and reflect and just be grateful.”

Indeed, Keck talked to the crowd Thursday about gratitude and hope, and noted, “It’s humbling to know that we live in a community that not only allows but welcomes the expression of our faith and we celebrate Christmas tonight.”

Along with the messages from Keck and Kelley, pastor Jeff Griffith of Denham Street Baptist Church said the prayer over the event, and Santa Claus read his favorite book to amazed children, “The Night Before Christmas,” and led them in a “Santa Jam” singalong.

But of course the highlight was the lighting of the tree itself, which will be ready to go all aglow for the Somerset-Pulaski County Community Christmas Parade on Saturday evening, and will stand lit throughout the rest of the month.

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