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Smiling through strap-on white beards, we marveled at the sea of red as costumed Santas waited with hot chocolate and cookies in hand. They had congregated from across nine counties for the annual Santa Shuffle Fun Run down to Harrison Square and back.

And I've gotta say, 600 participant Santas milling in the parking lot of North Arkansas Regional Medical Center (NARMC) was a surreal sight.

Those passing through Harrison during that hour might have felt they'd taken a wrong turn and wound up in some mystical town of Santa wannabes 1,200 miles north of Barrow, Alaska.

Having never participated in a dress-up Santa stampede with so many people of all ages, shapes and backgrounds, I realized my time finally had arrived to pay homage to the rotund jolly elf and the Christmas spirit. What's that "they" say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery?

Sponsored by the North Arkansas Medical Foundation in Harrison, this 1.5-mile event has swelled in popularity over the past two years. It requires a toy donation in exchange for each Santa suit, and a medal for all who finish.

The resulting mountain of over 820 children's gifts, up from 550 donated in 2018, was on display for everyone to ogle. They soon would be distributed through 17 organizations as Christmas gifts for disadvantaged children in homes across the six counties served by NARMC.

Christmas music blared across the hospital's vast visitor parking lot. Police had temporarily halted traffic on adjacent Main Street. The local Ridge Runner Cloggers had just entertained to loud applause. That meant the time for this red-and-white polyester herd to shuffle downhill was at hand.

I remembered that these sorts of feel-good community-based benefits are one reason I chose to return to my hometown in the Ozarks four years ago. The goodness and excited energy of those who call Harrison home reverberated through those who came to make this second Santa shuffle a holiday hoot.

Kim Brooks Rosson, the foundation's executive director (herself a force of nature) who organized this Santa festival and three other related Christmas events stretching over two weeks, emceed the activities. "Our foundation likes to focus on family and community this time of year," she said. "It's our way of giving back to the community."

Using her hand-held wireless microphone, Rosson ordered all anxious Santas to the starting point.

Suddenly, we were off, moving en masse downhill along Main Street, led by life-sized "elves" with giant plastic heads, toward the historic downtown square. Some in the front began to run while others chose to walk fast. We brought up the tail end, strolling at what I called a civilized pace for mature participants.

The pastel blue sky overhead and coolish dry temperatures reminded me of Santa Fe. On several street corners, young folks held encouraging messages. One teenage girl held a sign that asked: "Need a hug?" We decided we each did.

By the time we started back uphill toward the medical center, my artificial right hip was reminding me yet again that successful joint replacements have their limits as I headed toward the finish obviously favoring that side.

It was then I discovered, yes, there really is a Santa Claus. Slowly growling up behind us in a Kawasaki four-wheeler crept Randy Thorson, aka the event's "real" papa Santa Claus, bedecked in his personal and authentic crimson and white suit and customized silver beard, wearing a broad smile.

"You all need a ride?" He only had to ask once. Jeanetta and I piled into the one-seater beside Santa Randy and the three of us steadily chugged several hundred yards to the crest. In the process I discovered that when he's not the medical center's resident Saint Nick, Randy has held a day job as its plumber for more than 12 years.

He said he not only enjoys puttering amid the hospital pipes and such, but also donning his suit to perform at various locations in town in the weeks before Christmas. "I guess it just comes naturally to me since my father also used to play Santa Claus."

The finish line loomed and we pulled to a stop in the middle of a crowd that included scores of children, several infant strollers and a couple of dogs wearing festive yuletide vests.

Hopping out, we thanked Santa Randy just as one of those larger-than-life costumed elves handed us medals for finishing (they didn't ask how we'd shuffled to the finish, so I figured we qualified). Besides, it's not everyone who gets to go four-wheeling with Santa.

Then we posed for a picture with the nearby costumed snowman, followed by just one more cup of steaming hot chocolate and a few chocolate Kisses.

By noon, we'd officially become veterans (with an asterisk) of the town's second annual Santa Shuffle Fun Run (and ride) sponsored by generous area businesses and individuals like our friends Lionel and Paula Cantu.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

------------v------------

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 12/10/2019

Print Headline: MIKE MASTERSON: Shuffling along

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