The Man Behind the Switch

January 13, 2023

Master electrician retires after more than 35 years of service

Sal at the electrical box

For generations, the San Antonio community has celebrated the start of the holiday season the Saturday before Thanksgiving at UIW’s Annual Light the Way event. Each year, after the lights turn on, a man strolls through the crowd. Most in attendance don’t recognize who he is, but as Sal Saldaña walks through campus ensuring each strand of lightbulbs is twinkling as promised, he enjoys soaking in the view he and his team painstakingly took months to prepare.

Saldaña is UIW’s master electrician for the Department of Building Maintenance and Grounds. He started working at UIW in October of 1987 at just twenty-six years old, about a month before the University’s inaugural Light the Way celebration. On Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, Saldaña will retire from his post at the corner of Broadway and Hildebrand.

Throughout his more than 35 years of service, Saldaña has been witness to UIW’s exponential growth, from a boom in student enrollment, to new dorms and sports facilities, to the renovation of some of the University’s most historic buildings. As an electrician, he and his team have been involved in some of those renovations, such as Clement Residence Hall and Colbert Hall in the iconic Columkille Administration Building, which has since been repurposed for additional classroom and office space.

Sal in the liftSaldaña has loved working at UIW, highlighting “the family atmosphere, my co-workers, getting to know everyone, and serving the students and helping with what they need” as his favorite parts of the job.

But one of the biggest legacies he will leave is helping to grow UIW’s signature event, Light the Way. The production has grown tremendously over the years. During the first few years in the late 80s, the campus trees didn’t have electricity installed, so electricians like Saldaña had to run power to each tree and turn the lights on manually as they walked through campus.

Eventually, Saldaña and his team added electrical power directly to the trees to make it easier to turn the lights on during the holiday season.

“We installed permanent power on the trees, but it’s designated for Christmas, so the power isn’t on all year,” he shared. “We also have to constantly upgrade the outlets, because they don’t last forever, or the tree grows and they need more power to handle the lights. It’s a challenge, always trying to figure out the best way to light everything.”

Illuminating the campus is indeed a challenge and, Saldaña admits, a stressful one. But it’s one he’s never backed down from, finding ways to improve the process and end experience each year. That process is one that still takes approximately nine months out of the year to complete. Saldaña and his crew begin preparing the lights in July, checking every single bulb and light strand to ensure they are working properly. UIW students also volunteer to help check the bulbs in September, but Saldaña notes that his crew must give the final stamp of approval before a strand is used.

“We have to check and recheck every stringer that the students check. Our department examines every stringer before it goes on a tree. And then we continue to check them over the next few months.”

Sal and his daughter, Vanessa

In total, Saldaña’s team of electricians spends five months detangling, inspecting, repairing and hanging the lights in preparation for the holidays. The lights remain on through the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, a religious observation that officially marks the end of the Christmas season in the Catholic Church. Then, as the weather and their schedules permit, Saldaña and his team begin removing the lights for a brief stint in storage, a process which he said takes “a couple of months.”

As hundreds gather around the iconic Light the Way light switch for the official lighting ceremony each year, Saldaña stands in the background at another electrical switch, an unassuming grey box that few people notice. He watches the ceremony, listens intently to the countdown, and flips the switch that helps illuminates campus. His team stands ready at different stations around campus, waiting for his cue to ensure the Christmas magic reaches each point, making it an awe inspiring night for all in attendance. During his final Light the Way last November, Saldaña walked through the crowd knowing the role he played in their happiness that night with a keen understanding that few realized the challenges and the effort it takes to produce such an event.

“The joy is an internal feeling, because when I flip the switch and see the lights come on, I see all my hard work come alive. Everyone is standing around admiring the lights, but me and my crew are walking around unrecognized … But in my eyes, I know that we did it. It takes the whole crew to make it work.”

As he looks back on the last 35 years at UIW, he would not change a thing.

“It’s been a journey. It was a pleasure coming into work every day. I don’t have any regrets. It’s all been worthwhile, and it’s going to be hard to walk away.”

When asked if he was proud of the work he did at UIW, Saldaña answered with a smile.

“When you love the work you do, you’re always proud.”