Magnet Cove man lives role of Santa

Originally Published December 9, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated December 7, 2012 at 9:21 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

This Hot Spring County man claims to be the one and only Santa Claus. If you call him, his caller ID backs up the claim identifying him, indeed, as Santa Claus.

— Who knew Santa Claus had a home in Magnet Cove? The owner drives a vehicle with the tag that reads 1Santa1, and when he returns a call, the caller ID shows “Santa Claus.”

“There will be another name on my tombstone, but until then, I’m Santa,” the jolly old elf said during an interview in Malvern on Tuesday. “When I’m out around town, everyone says, ‘Hi, Santa,’ and that’s me.”

What else can you call a man who has a long beard like the one made famous in all those Coca Cola ads throughout the 20th century? It is a persona that continues through the year. Long after the yuletide season, he can be found working in his home-based business, Signs by Santa.

“I was taught that you don’t praise yourself,” he said, “so I’ll just tell you I am told people believe I’m Santa, and I’ll let it go at that.”

People who know or do business with the man come close to verifying that he is “the Santa.”

“If you met him during the summer with his beard and his manner, you might think he was a little strange,” said a Malvern resident who didn’t want to give her name. “Then you realize, he is Santa all year long.”

The gentleman who wears the traditional red suit said he discovered he was Santa around 1990. At the time, he worked as a salesman for a company that built geodesic domes.

“When we were finished with building one in Hot Springs Village, the owners wanted to have a party for their staff, and they asked me to appear,” he said. “I said I would if they would rent me a Santa suit.”

That party led to other bookings, and soon he was Santa. He said he got better being Mr. Kringle the more he remained himself.

“I first tried to change my voice to sound more jolly,” the Magnet Cove Santa said. “I ended up sounding like W.C. Fields. So I just didn’t try to change my voice anymore.”

Before long, he was one of the most popular Santas in the region. For several years, he took part in the annual Santa Train that brought Santa and a sleigh full of toys to children who might not have a Christmas present without Santa’s help.

The Santa Train is run from Malvern to Hot Springs, with stops in communities along the way. Sponsored by the Arkansas Midland Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad, the Santa Train is a big event in Hot Spring and Garland counties every year.

Santa built first one sleigh and then another to be carried on the train or used in parades.

The big one took me 10 years to build, and it weighed more than 5,000 pounds,” Santa said. “It had three snow machines that could lay down a path of snow in no time.”

It has retractable runners and cockpit dials on the dashboard.

Santa is a licensed pilot with commerce-carrier ratings, although he said he has only flown a paying passenger once.

“I can fly through the air, I tell the kids,” he said. “I told you I was Santa.”

While riding the Santa Train, Santa said, he most enjoyed the stop in the Jones Mill community.

“Some of the least-fortunate kids live in that area, and I wanted them to have the very best Santa, and that is me, or so I have been told.”

On the train and in many other appearances, Santa was accompanied by Mrs. Claus. They met later in life. He was 33; she was 50.

“When we talked about getting married, she mentioned the age difference.

“I told her I didn’t have a problem with it, that she did,” Santa said. “We didn’t talk about it again.”

She died in 2007 after 26 years of marriage. He said he thinks of her whenever the wind blows.

He said making believers out of all the kids is the challenge he faces every time he dons his gay apparel.

I was appearing at a tree farm in Mena once when a kid came into the gift shop where I was, and I could tell he was on a mission,” Santa said. “I was wearing an [earbud], and my elf at the door told me [the boy’s name] was Johnny.”

Santa greeted him by name, which caused a gasp of surprise from the young petitioner. Santa said Johnny told him he wanted a .22-caliber rifle.

“I asked him if he meant a real rifle, and he said he did,” Santa said. “My elf told me Johnny’s folks had one for him to find under the tree, but I made him promise to take every gun-safety and hunting-safety course I could think of and to follow every gun-handling tip I could remember, and he promised. As Johnny left, the elf spoke again, and I told the boy to tell his dog, Booger, that I would arrive on Christmas Eve and to not let him bite me. When Johnny got back to his parents, he loudly told them, ‘Santa even knows my dog’s name.’ The boy left knowing he had been with Santa Claus.”

Santa even has a bit of magic ready for the children. When he snaps his fingers or points to a child, his gloved index finger flashes a bright light. If one listens closely afterward, something like a photo flash recharging may be heard, but it is seldom heard by a room full of children thrilled by his magic.

Often Santa appears for just one person. He told of being asked to visit a man who had cerebral palsy.

“He could not speak, but he loved Christmas and Santa,” Santa said. “I saw him smile, and we had a great visit. I kind of adopted the family, and I would sometimes bring a turkey or ham by and say the elves had made too much and wanted to share.”

Before he realized he was Santa, his life was unusual and interesting.

He dropped out of Henderson State University in Arkadelphia in his freshman year, only to return 44 years later.

He enjoys being a student this time but wishes he did not have to overcome the bad grades he made during his first trip to college.

“There ought to be a time limit for someone who came back after 44 years,” Santa said — the only time during the interview when the joy diminished, and there was the shine of coal and switches in his eyes.

His uncle was a pilot, and Santa often flew with him. Santa became a pilot around the age of 20 and served in the Arkansas Air Force National Guard for 13 years.

A year after his last geodesic dome sale in Hot Springs Village, and just as he was discovering the Santa within, he opened a sign business that he runs out of his home.

He makes signs for businesses and also for the sides of ambulances, fire trucks and even trains.

“I have never painted signs,” he said. “After they took lead out of paint, painted signs don’t last.”

He makes the signs on a computer, and he said business is good, but he always shuts it down on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and picks it up again a few days after Christmas.

“That way people know I am the real Santa. I concentrate on the kids and those who need Christmas cheer after that,” he said.

He goes a few extra days after Christmas to take care of people who have to work on the holiday and might have to postpone their festivities.

The Hot Spring County Santa also asks for a background check every year from the Arkansas State Police.

“I want mamas and daddies to know they don’t have to worry when they put their children in my lap,” Santa said. “I often get down in the floor with them because children can get scared of an adult sitting in a big chair.”

Santa even made it through emergency heart surgery a few years ago.

“I thought I might be having a heart attack, and I called 911 and went back to the picnic table in the backyard,” he said. “When the first responders showed up, they knew me because of my signs on their vehicles and called me Santa.”

As he was being prepared for bypass surgery, he tried to stop nurses from cutting his beard, telling them he was Santa.

“One nurse came in and told the young nurse who was trying to trim my beard, ‘He said he is Santa, and he looks real, so you had better not cut too much if you want anything for Christmas,’” Santa said. “When I woke up, I found they had trimmed just a bit, but saved it for me in a bag.”

Santa was at the Choir of Lights at Henderson State University on Monday night, greeting children and spreading the spirit of Christmas. He brought his magic with him and helped the kids believe.

Maybe he is the Ho-ho-ho guy.

To contact Santa, call (501) 332-3344. Check the caller ID.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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