The 5-year-old boy slowly approached Santa, young reasoning allowing that Santa could grant his wish.
"Can you tell my daddy I miss him and love him?" the little fellow asked, adding that his daddy had recently died.
Behind the Santa beard, Wesley Norton, grandpa and Vietnam veteran with a big heart for kids, swallowed the lump in his throat and assured the child he'd do his best.
The encounter occurred at Dr. Mary Giella Elementary School last year and Wesley, on Thursday, returned as Santa, greeting kids with his best "HO! HO! HO!" and ready for the most unexpected wishes.
Norton's Santa job sprung from his wife Penny's volunteering at Mary Giella. She could be dubbed "Mrs. Claus" for her coordination of donations from Heritage Pines. Residents from the retirement community just south of the Pasco-Hernando county line open their hearts and wallets abundantly to the school, contributing things needy kids lack, including clothes, underwear, books and toothbrushes.
The usual Heritage Pines donations are exceptional this year, because the needs are greater than ever at Mary Giella, where 77 percent of the 620 students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
Penny Norton credits Heritage Pines residents with the tight community-school relationship. Residents quickly say she spearheaded the connection that sparkled Tuesday when more than 100 Mary Giella second-graders performed at Heritage Pines, giving songs, humor and kid warmth to a packed crowd of more than 250.
"Your generosity is truly overwhelming," school principal George Papaemanuel told the residents, his voice heavy with emotion. "We want you to know how important you are to us."
He thanked the community for 125 gift cards, each $25. They're used throughout the year to replace a child's threadbare clothes or worn-out sneakers. And the donations go beyond material things.
"This community contributes their time in multifaceted ways, like volunteering and substituting," said "Mr. Papa," as he is affectionately known. He then presented the community with a framed drawing created by Mary Giella fifth-grader Katie Milczarzyk.
A lunch, provided by community resident Bob Mayer, was spread for children and school staff.
Mayer, 89, watched with a smile. "I like to give children the opportunity to see there are better things if they work for them," he said.
Children found gifts everywhere. Each collected one of 600 reindeer candy canes made by Lorna Colton and Howard Stringer. Piled on another table were packages of crocheted hats and scarves created by Angels in the Pines, headed up by Kathy Hendrickson. There was a large gift bag for each child stuffed with crayons, a Beanie Baby and other fun things, gifts from the Lady Niners — a small part of more than $8,000 the community golfers raised this year with Paula Routten and Louise Cuciniello as driving forces.
It all goes to Mary Giella students.
Lunch over, the children prepared to leave but another treat awaited. Art Morrow, Penny's 94-year-old father in his bright red sweater, handed $2 to each child in memory of his late wife. The tradition began some years ago, when Art and his wife, Pearl, watched the children perform. From the clouds of Alzheimer's, Pearl suddenly was clear with her thoughts.
"Art, these children are poor. Give them some money," Pearl said before lapsing back into the fog.
Since that year Art has been ready, his frail hands clasping a small blue bag holding more than $200, with two $1 bills he clipped together for each child. Several children said they'd use it to buy their parents a present.
On a recent morning in Heritage Pines, Penny and Wesley Norton and neighbors Pat and Harry Hoy packed a full car and truck bed with gift bags stuffed with kid things. They were headed to school with one of several loads, a bedroom in the Norton home still crammed full.
"Wait! Here's two more," a neighbor called, coming in a trot, swinging two large Frosty the Snowman bags.
Penny's story goes back several years and involves scores — maybe hundreds — of people.
Penny and Wesley arrived in Heritage Pines from Dearborn, Mich., in January 2003. Penny was an adult tutor back home and began volunteering at Mary Giella. She saw a need too great to ignore.
A community book club of about 10 that Penny joined donated candy canes and books to about 100 kindergarteners in 2004. That's a tradition now, and on Thursday when the children met Santa, they received a new book.
Reindeer candy canes and packages of more hats and scarves were given out by Heritage Pines community members.
In 2005, Penny was asked if she could gather tennis shoes for kids. A box she placed in the community center filled quickly.
By 2006, Penny had a school-generated list of 40 kids in grades K-5. They needed pajamas, underwear, socks, shoes and jackets. She contacted Heritage Pines clubs. In came the needed items.
In 2007, Penny got a list of 125 children. Not comfortable with public speaking, Penny gathered her courage and went to the microphone on Veterans Day. In a shaky voice she said to Heritage Pines residents, "I need help!"
Response was fast. The Lady Niners golfers took 50 kids and later decided their entire annual fundraising would go to Mary Giella's needy children.
In 2009, Angels in the Pines joined in with crocheting and knitting hats and scarves.
On the 2012 list are 139 kids and if the number of packages are any indication, every child's needs were met. A limit of $100 is set for each child and care is given so that siblings receive equal portions.
Mary Giella parent involvement assistant Shirley Picklo credits Penny for steering things, but readily praises the entire Heritage Pines community. Picklo stood to one side of the stage Tuesday morning, almost in awe of the gathered crowd and their tremendous support.
More to herself that anyone in particular, Shirley quietly said, "These people simply bowl me over."
Gail Diederich can be reached at [email protected]