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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Frank Rouse from Indianapolis shares a laugh with 10-year-olds Gricelda Villa, bottom right, and Veronica Bordallo at the Salvation Army on Saturday.

With rosy cheeks in July heat, Santas talk shop

Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Alivia Spratt, 6, is surprised to see St. Nick at the Salvation Army. Spratt looks over at her mom after talking with St. Nick, aka Jim Holliger, during the Hoosier Santa visit Saturday.

It was Santas as far as the eye could see – licking their fingers and eating ribs at a Fort Wayne restaurant Saturday afternoon. Long white beards, snowy hair, twinkling eyes and rosy cheeks – a dozen Hoosier Santas and their spouses, along with one Ms. Claus, got together at a Georgetown restaurant for the Hoosier Santas monthly club meeting.

Started by professional Santas Larry Shaw of Indianapolis and Owen Davenport of Terre Haute in January, the group already boasts more than 55 members statewide, including a former Hoosier who now lives in Arizona.

The Santas get together to network and share ideas, photos and concerns. They also coordinate appearances at events and gatherings and serve as an employment center of sorts. Most members, if not all, have a soft spot in their hearts when it comes to children.

The group rallied, held a toy drive and delivered bags of new toys to children in Henryville after tornadoes devastated the southern Indiana town in March.

Kip Lackey of Fort Wayne has been a Santa since 2001, the year he retired from Consolidated Freightways. He had a short white beard for nearly 30 years but began to grow it out after retiring.

The first time Lackey rented a suit and became Santa Claus, he was hooked. Now he owns several custom suits, perfectly tailored to his round physique.

When he and his wife, Janis, walk the beaches of Siesta Keys, Fla., Lackey likes to don his Santa beachwear – a pair of red swimming trunks with red suspenders and red beach shoes.

The walk is normally 45 minutes, but his usually turns into a two-hour event, as people stop to visit with Santa and have their photos taken.

Saturday, when temperatures in Fort Wayne topped 100 degrees, Lackey sported red shorts and a long, heavy traditional Santa waistcoat that he quickly removed after making an entrance and greeting the others.

Individually, the Santas always draw stares and second looks, but collectively, the sight is a traffic-stopper.

Many remain in character throughout the year. Lackey identifies himself as Santa Claus on his voice mail and then throws in a few convincing bowlful-of-jelly ho-ho-hos.

Once in a restaurant, Lackey and his wife were seated next to a family with young children. One of the children, a boy who looked to be about 4 years old, was being an absolute terror, Lackey said.

When the boy saw what appeared to be Santa Claus sitting at the next table, he stopped and stared.

“I gave him one of these,” Lackey said, furrowing his white eyebrows and turning his usually jolly face into a mask of disapproval.

The boy sat back down and was well-behaved while his family finished eating, Lackey remembers.

The mother of the lad stopped by Lackeys’ table on her way out and sighed, asking, “Oh, Santa, will you go home with us?”

But not all of the children’s stories are funny, Owen Davenport said. Some of the tales are really sad, he said.

Fifteen years ago, when he was not quite 30 years old, Davenport quit his stressful job at the Indiana Department of Correction.

“I was fed up,” Davenport said. He was looking for a job and noticed an ad to work as Santa at Kmart.

He got the job and was so good at it; he continued to get other gigs, working not only in Indiana, but in malls across the country, including Colorado, California, Illinois and Kentucky.

Although he hears the sad stories from time to time, Davenport said the greatest experience is watching a child approach him, breathless with excitement and wide-eyed with wonder at meeting Santa Claus.

Jeff Stillman, who lives on Christmas Lake in Christmas Village in Santa Claus, Ind. – seriously – has been playing Santa for 38 years.

Rick Parker of Greenwood is the newest member, although he’s been an active Santa ever since his wife, Gloria, asked him 14 years ago to fill in at her company’s Christmas party.

The lone woman of the group, Edna Leedy of Albion, is an independent Ms. Claus. Her white hair falls in ringlets around her face, and her smile is warm.

Leedy lived in Alaska for 16 years – only 12 miles from the North Pole – before moving back to Indiana to be near her family. The North Pole connection seemed like a logical step to becoming Ms. Claus, she said.

For the past four or five years, Leedy has greeted people throughout Noble County at Christmas events and light displays.

“It makes me happy, and I think it makes others happy,” Leedy said. “I enjoy Christmas and I try to encourage others to do so, as well.”