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Super Senior: Gene Tessier

Published: Nov. 4, 2021 at 1:36 PM EDT
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DERBY CENTER, Vt. (WCAX) - Working with wood at his workshop in Derby Center, 72-year-old Gene Tessier is a handyman.

“You know, I don’t work the whole time. A lot of time people stop in and visit,” Tessier said.

At just over five feet, he’s a short man with a big heart. Just take a look outside. “I think I’ve got 17,000 lights,” Tessier said.

Every year Gene has an army of inflatables. “I started out with five and now I have 35,” he said. Scores of Santas standing at attention ready for the Christmas season. “The main reason I turn them on so early is because it takes me so long to put them up.”

Reporter Joe Carroll: What’s your power bill like?

Gene Tessier: Oh, about $500 for the month... I like to see the kids, the expressions on their faces, you know.

Tessier will officially hit the switch right after Veteran’s Day -- a day dear to his heart.

Reporter Joe Carroll: What kind of kid were you before Vietnam?

Gene Tessier: Wild. Used to like to party, you know.

After being drafted, he was shipped off to fight at the age of 19. “The first time you get out of that helicopter, you start getting shot at, you knew you were in a different world,” Tessier said.

Because of his small size, he became a “tunnel rat,” the guys who went into enemy tunnels armed just with a gun and a flashlight.

Reporter Joe Carroll: I can’t imagine anything more scary than being a tunnel rat.

Gene Tessier: Well, you know, you’re 19...

For decades Tessier rarely talked about the war. “Nope, didn’t. I mean, nobody wanted to hear about it,” he said. He now talks freely about the memories that linger. Like the time he had to make sure an American wasn’t buried in a shallow grave. “I dug up one and we started getting fired on and I jumped in the hole, right beside ‘em to get away from the fire and I smelt that man for three days,” Tessier said. “You know, the death -- it makes you think, it just makes you think.”

Reporter Joe Carroll: Vietnam changed you?

Gene Tessier: Yeah, I think it did.

No longer the carefree kid, he witnessed the fragility of life. thinking less of himself and more of others. “I guess I like to see people happy. I like to please people, you know,” Tessier said.

And the season of giving extends to his other job, steering a school bus. It’s not just his home he decorates. “Oh, I decorate the whole inside... I hook the lights onto here,” he explained.

Twice daily he delivers junior high kids from Morgan, Holland, and Derby Line. “I follow the border all the way up now,” Tessier said.

Eight-grader Preston Harris has been riding with Mr. Tessier for years. “He doesn’t care if you’re loud, but there is a point where he’ll say, ‘Be quiet.’ He’s just genuine,” Harris said.

Back at home just after dusk Tessier offers a sneak preview of his display. “Everyone has a little kid in them,” he said.

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