AUSTIN (KXAN) - Jack Hale has been dead and gone for four years, but members of his family can almost hear him chuckling from the grave.
There was nothing funny about Christmas 2008, in the extended Hale family, though. Children, siblings and siblings' children were all suffering through a somber gloom during what had historically always been a highlight of their year, due primarily to the Christmas spirit that permeated Jack.
"My dad, his favorite holiday was Christmas," said Hale's daughter, Crystal Hale. "Our house would be lit up. I swear you could see it from space.
"He was the happiest during Christmas; he loved going to see family and he loved decorating."
So when Jack passed away in October of 2007, at the age of 41, his family at first struggled through the holidays. Then they found a way to cope. In early December, they picked out one of scores of fat cedar trees that line the right-of-way above Loop 360, the major roadway that skirts the city's western side.
Family members donned Hawaiian shirts, Jack's favorite apparel, and hauled boxes of non-traditional ornaments to the tree.
They hung auto parts, in remembrance of Jack's love of cars. They added a 45 rpm record in honor of his appreciation of music. There was a picture of Hale and a small prayer card.
"Little sentimental things that remind us of our brother," said Hale's sister, Sharon Garcia.
As they hung the ornaments, their pain seemed to lift and they found themselves recalling Jack happily. Laughter returned to the family and an annual tradition was born.
"Through that silly little tree on the side of the road," said sister Martha Monreal," Jack is with us for Christmas again."
The same ritual returned every year: A decorating party in early December followed by some occasional drive-bys to enjoy the tree.
Then, unlike many people who also decorate trees along 360 and in other parts of town, Hale family members return on or around New Year's Day to remove their ornaments and pack them away for use the following year.
So you can imagine their horror as word spread through the family that this year someone had slipped into the roadside cedar break, probably under cover of night, and taken a saw to Jack's tree.
"I was shocked to find the tree was completely gone," said Garcia, "cut down, nothing but a stump left, and one ornament."
That single ornament, discovered leaning up against the six-inch tall stump, provoked some discussion. Was it a message from the thief, a way of helping the family understand what had happened? Or was it just an accident, an oversight?
The biggest mystery, though, was: Why? Family members quickly decided to assume the best about the thief.
"Maybe someone was desperate," suggested Monreal, "and needed a tree for their kids and didn't want their kids to go through Christmas without a tree."
Hale's widow, Mary Hale, agreed: "That's the way my husband was," she said. "He was always there to take care of somebody. He would give anything away just to make somebody happy."
Of course, the decision to be positive is just that: A decision. There is still plenty of emotion with which to contend.
"I can't believe somebody would honestly do that," said Hale's daughter, Crystal Hale. "I just really hope it was for their family and not just a cruel prank to play on somebody because that tree had true meaning to us. It hurts a lot to see it gone."
"I don't know that a lot of people understand that sure, some of these trees are here because people have the spirit of Christmas and so on," Garcia added. "But many of these trees are here in memory of people and to help families cope with not having their loved ones around at Christmas time."
Still the decision is made and it's time to move on.
"My brother was a very giving person," Monreal said. "He was one of those people that was very genuine and would find good in everybody, for every reason, no matter what.
"And so what I'm trying to walk away from this with is that someone needed that tree worse than we needed it to be here.
"And if my brother's tree and those silly little decorations that we put on it made somebody else's Christmas better, then all I can think is my brother would be happy with that. Even when he's gone, he's still making people happy."
Over at the Texas Department of Transportation, though, the "powers that be" were not so happy.
"Technically, it would constitute destruction of state property and theft," said TxDOT spokesperson Chris Bishop, "probably anywhere from say, a Class A to a Class C misdemeanor."
Bishop acknowledged that the "crime" is not likely to send a battalion of Texas Rangers storming up the Loop 360 hill. After all, there appear to be no witnesses or evidence.
Still, he pointed out, someone caught cutting down a state-owned tree could wind up in trouble.
Back on top of "Christmas Tree Hill," the Hale family takes one last look at the stump of "Jack's Tree," and wanders away, already making mental notes of the ornaments they will collect for next year's decorating party.
just have to start over," said Garcia.
The wind blew out of the north, and on it, rode a hearty Christmas chuckle.
A local road project more than two decades in the making won't save drivers as much time as many had hoped.
The University of Texas Board of Regents adjourned Thursday without taking action on the job status of embattled UT President Bill Powers.
Longhorns coach Mack Brown talked with reporters Thursday for the first time since reports surfaced this week that he could be stepping down.
Two men were arrested and a third was being sought by police for the shooting death of 47-year-old Russell Martens.
After two hours of discussion regarding the final design for Auditorium Shores, the Austin City Council decided to approve the design on a vote of 7-0 with amendments.
Despite what seemed like a surge of controversies, the Austin Aquarium opened its doors to members Thursday for a private pre-entry showing.