Wednesday, December 13, 2017
News Roundup

Bowen: Lasting Santa moments when moments really matter

Chopper Davis has a variety of lines on his resume.

Barkeep. Supervisor at a sheltered workshop for the developmentally disabled. Baseball umpire. Soccer referee. Sales. New Port Richey City Council member.

And on each Dec. 25, Santa Claus.

Davis, 68, who has the white handlebar mustache but needs an artificial beard to complete the portrayal, began his Christmas Day ritual in 2006. He and his then-wife, an employee of HCA Community Hospital, dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus and made an unannounced visit to patients at the New Port Richey hospital.

Davis didn't even own the red suit. He had to rent it.

But the results were immediate. Not so much for the patients, but for the would-be Kris Kringle. His future Christmas plans had been cemented.

"That day, I decided — from now on, for the rest of my life — I'm not too big that my family can't wait for me (to allow me) to play Santa," Davis said.

The audience changed, however, and eventually, so did the mission.

The next year, they visited assisted-living centers and nursing homes during a two-hour spree. They started by 8 a.m. and hit four or five facilities. It was ''Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas." Hand out a candy cane or a trinket. Pose for a photo if the resident wanted. Then on to the next person.

Consider it a Santa meet-and-greet. Anybody who has visited Santa at a mall knows the routine. The line is too long for a conversation lasting more than a few sentences.

But the day wasn't over. The final stop was a trip to the HPH Marliere Hospice Care Center arranged by a friend who worked there. Davis and his wife arrived at 10 a.m. and talked to the patients and their families for as long as they wanted to converse. Every Christmas Day since, he has returned to the hospice center on Rowan Road.

This isn't bad Santa. This is sad Santa. Davis said he's glad to have the costume to hide his emotions. Essentially, he's trying to brighten the day for people who have very few days left.

Over the years, he's gained a Santa suit — getting one for a discounted price at a costume shop's going-out-of-business sale — and lost Mrs. Claus when he and his spouse divorced. But the 10 a.m. routine on Christmas morning hasn't altered. He might spend as long as three hours talking to the terminally ill and their loved ones. Some don't care for a visit. Others relish the meeting.

Once, Davis visited a near-centenarian and planned to talk about the man's longevity, but the patient beat him to the punch.

"You know, this is your 99th visit to me," the man deadpanned when Santa entered.

There also was a chance meeting with four generations of a Port Richey family who didn't realize for several minutes that the Santa they were talking to was a longtime acquaintance. That family insisted on a photo, and they all crowded around Santa to be in the image. That has happened more than once.

In that regard, Davis gets to be a part of some of the final happy moments that hospice patients are likely to have.

Cynthia Cortes, the clinical manager at the HPH Marliere Hospice Care Center, remembered the time Davis was there to comfort the grandchildren of a woman who had just passed away Christmas morning.

"Chopper has been a blessing to everyone," Cortes said, noting how much the staff enjoys the visits, too.

He also has portrayed Santa a few times elsewhere. The happy Santa, Davis calls it.

He has visited the neighbors' kids in the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning, delivering one last gift about 6 a.m. to the still-believing children. He has spread cheer at the city employees luncheon in New Pork Richey and done a private party or two. But, his focus for the most part remains on hospice patients.

"I could never work in that field, but I can try to help make them happy for whatever time they've got left," he said.

The emotions can run both ways.

Like the time he visited a woman who had her hair done, makeup applied and was dressed in a Christmas sweater. Her husband sported a Marine Corps shirt. They both were eager for the visit. They talked for a while, and upon Davis' departure from her room, she handed him an envelope. Her husband walked him out and thanked him for the visit.

"This meant so much to her and so much to me," the man told him.

When Davis left the building and got to his vehicle, he opened the envelope. It was a Christmas card to Santa.

"I've been good all year, but I got cancer," it read. "But I'm going to beat it."

Santa sat in his red pickup and cried.

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