Bozeman boy to light U.S. Capitol Christmas tree

by Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Gail Schontzler

Mr. Ridley is going to Washington.

Ridley Brandmayr, the 11-year-old Bozeman boy who lost the fingers of his right hand in an accident this summer, has been chosen by Montana Sen. Jon Tester to light the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree at an outdoor ceremony on Dec. 6.

Tester’s office announced the honor Tuesday, saying that because the Christmas tree will come from Montana and he is the state’s senior senator, Tester gets to choose the person who will light the tree.

“Ridley has shown incredible strength, determination, perseverance and passion,” Tester said in a statement. “Ridley will represent Montana well and I look forward to celebrating this Christmas season with the Brandmayr family and every Montanan.”

Ridley, now a sixth-grader at Sacajawea Middle School, took time out Tuesday from a Halloween party at home with several buddies to talk about the chance to light the national tree. He said he felt “excited and grateful for the opportunity.”

The Brandmayr family made a long-planned trip to Washington last month. They met Sens. Tester and Steve Daines at the Wednesday morning Montana Coffee, open to any visiting constituents. That’s when Tester first suggested the tree-lighting honor.

“I was just amazed,” Ridley said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was one of those moments that are like a dream.”

Tester, who lost three fingers on his left hand when he was a boy, had phoned Ridley after the boy’s June 30 kitchen accident, while he was still being treated at Children’s Primary Hospital in Salt Lake City.

Mom Emily Brandmayr said Tester urged her son not to use the injury as an excuse, or to see it as a disability, but to feel that “‘you will prevail.'” It was a lovely thing to do, she said.

Ridley said that Tester’s call gave him a feeling like confidence.

“I just thought it was cool that he was in a similar accident and years later he became a senator,” Ridley said. “He didn’t let that slow him down.”

After staying with family in Iowa this summer, the Brandmayrs returned to Bozeman just before school started.

“He’s doing really well,” dad Brent Brandmayr said. “By and large he’s thriving at Sacajawea. The teachers have been super supportive. It helps Emily and I to see how well he’s doing.”

Ridley is back on the Barracuda swim team. At an informal swim-a-thon, Ridley swam more than two miles without a prosthetic, his dad said. The first meet is coming up this weekend in Butte, and his son seems a little nervous but excited.

“It’s pretty inspirational,” Brent said. Ridley is a neat and amazing kid, he said, who has impressed the surgeons and other adults he’s met.

Ridley said he’s playing cello again. His teacher fixed up a weight lifting glove, putting two holes in it to help him hold the bow with his injured hand. His dad said Ridley has also been fishing, and hopes to get back to soccer.

“No,” Ridley said. There’s nothing he can’t do.

This summer friends from Ridley’s fifth-grade class at Longfellow School, their parents and his former teacher, Patti Ritter, decided to raise money to help defray hospital bills and show their support.

Kids sold lemonade downtown and at Bogert Park, knit hats and stuffed animals to sell, got donations from businesses, and sent Ridley cards, candy drawings and get-well wishes. The classmates raised thousands of dollars to contribute through a GoFundMe page, which posted that more than $42,000 was raised.

Despite the accidents, surgeries and all he has been through, Ridley is still himself.

“He’s still got his great sense of humor,” his dad said.

Before school started, Brent said, the family held a party, inviting all the Longfellow fifth-graders who were about to start sixth grade, as a thanks to the community.

“It was really cool and neat,” Brent said. “The kids got to see him before school started and reestablish that bond. The kids were super respectful. They were playing football and wrestling.

“We’re definitely feeling really grateful for all the support.”

For the Halloween party, Ridley dressed up as the lead rock guitarist Slash from Guns N’Roses, while his younger brother Ross, 8, was a devil. Friends came as the Energizer bunny, Mr. Monopoly, a lumberjack and characters from the “Hunger Games” and “Star Wars.”

“It’s been wonderful being back,” Emily said.

The Capitol Christmas tree will be cut Nov. 8 in the Kootenai National Forest. From northwest Montana it will travel thousands of miles to Washington.

It will make several stops in Montana, starting Nov. 13 in Eureka and Whitefish; Nov. 14 in Libby, Troy and Trout Creek; Nov. 15 in Thompson Falls and Missoula; Nov. 16 in Helena and Great Falls; Nov. 17 in Fort Belknap and Glasgow; Nov. 18 in Glendive; and then on to North Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland.