Published in the Columbia City Post and Mail on Thursday, December 9, 2010
Disclaimer: People with stars in their eyes and small children should not read this column.
I still believe in the big fat guy with the long white beard and the red suit.
When I was a child, we lived in a yellow house on Walnut Street in South Whitley. One hot summer afternoon my neighbor Betty Saffer, her sister, and I sat at a wooden picnic table chewing over the issues of the day. Betty informed my six-year-old self that the Big Man was just a figment of my imagination. I still do not believe her, despite evidence to the contrary.
I am aware that Kris Kringle has helpers. That Jolly Old Elf cannot possibly be everywhere at once, so he has assistants who mimic his looks, personality, and ho-ho-ho-ing.
One of his helpers journeyed to South Whitley’s Kent Theatre each year on the town’s red fire truck. The Kent’s front sidewalk sparkled in the sun or under the marquee lights, making the theatre entrance a magical place for a child. Members of the Lion’s Club provided candy and Kent owners Don and Vi LeBrun provided the popcorn and drinks. Children enjoyed a popular movie of the day. (Going to “the show” at the Kent Theatre was a regular part of a South Whitley childhood. In 1967, I saw Gone with the Wind on the big screen for fifty cents.)
Another helper lived in the petite, red, white, and green house on the Whitley County Courthouse lawn. When we trekked to the county seat for Christmas shopping at Blumenthals, Schultz’s Dime Store, or the Garden Gift, we made another visit to the Big Man in the tiny house.
One of Santa’s helpers occasionally came to South Whitley Elementary School, the public library, or a friend’s house. My grandparents owned a set of sleigh bells that belonged to Anna and Kellis Hoard, my grandmother’s parents. One of Santa’s helpers often visited the farm, carrying that family heirloom which now belongs to my brother. I imagine my personal version of “Jingle Bells,” my grandmother as a child, riding in the family’s horse-pulled open sleigh with her two sisters over the hills of Tunker Road.
Despite all the Santa sightings, those growing up in South Whitley knew where the real Santa was! He was twenty-five miles to the east at Wolf and Dessauers in Fort Wayne. Some said he was a man named Phil Steigerwald, but I never believed them. This was the real Santa.
Santa had his own live television show on WKJG, channel 33, every afternoon during December. Children lined up to have their photo made with him. His elf Wee Willie Wand, dressed in traditional elf clothing, entertained children in line. My brother and I never missed the show, hoping to catch a glimpse of school chums.
My childhood scrapbook has several pictures of my brother and me, shyly posing next to Santa. A visit to W and Ds meant that we dressed in our Christmas clothing, often a velvet jumper for me, and a white shirt, bow tie, suspenders, and dress pants for my brother. I suspect thousands of other northeastern Indiana children have similar pictures.
Located at the northeast corner of Calhoun and Washington streets, Wolf and Dessauers operated in the grand tradition of the great urban department stores. The large neon display outside the store gave a child’s heart the first hint that Santa was indeed inside this four-story building. Animated window displays enchanted and amazed me, long before more sophisticated technology left little to the imagination.
After telling Santa our secrets and having the requisite picture made, we took in a movie at the Jefferson or the Embassy, or had a fifteen cent hamburger at Fort Wayne’s original downtown McDonalds.
While my Kodachrome pictures of those visits to the real Santa are fading, the memories remain bright and multi-colored in my heart.
Copyright A.Abbott 2010