CLEARWATER — Holding her mom's hand, Tinker Bell skipped into the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg on Saturday morning with a Christmas wish.
The 2-year-old in a glittery green dress, who also goes by Alicia Hollis, saw Santa and crawled into his lap.
"I want a fairy princess doll," she whispered.
"Okay!" Santa boomed, winking at Mom. "A princess for a princess."
John Russell, 63, calls himself "the Clearwater Santa." From early November to New Year's Day, the man with naturally rosy cheeks and a thick, white beard visits hospitals, parks and private parties across the Tampa Bay region.
He never drops character. It goes much deeper than method acting.
Spreading Santa's joy helped erase his own pain, he says. Santa saved his life.
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Twenty years ago, when the bones in his right foot began to disappear, Russell kept walking. An auto mechanic who grew up playing football in rural Pennsylvania, he believed real men, even diabetic men like himself, should take pain without complaint.
"Looking back," he said, "it was just macho stupidity."
After months of aching, Russell saw a doctor who told him bad news: He had Charcot Foot, a condition that can, over time, grind bones to dust. Severe damage was spreading up his shin.
Doctors had to amputate his right leg below the knee. And suddenly, after a lifetime of independence, Russell couldn't do anything alone.
"I got so depressed," he said. "For the first time in my life, I wasn't working. I concentrated on my sadness."
Russell found rehab slow, humiliating and frustrating. He contemplated taking his own life, but decided he couldn't do that to his wife, Peggy, their three sons, their grandchildren and their Australian shepherd, Jade.
He spent years trying different prosthetic legs, which always broke, until he found the perfect fit from a specialist in St. Petersburg.
Every day, he practiced lifting his 300-pound frame from his couch or wheelchair. The first time he walked across his living room without the aid of his wife or a cane, "was the best feeling in the world," he said.
Slowly, Russell started leaving the house, living again.
One bright December day about three years ago, Russell and his wife went to Westfield Countryside mall to shop for Christmas gifts. While Peggy wandered through Sears, he sat watching the mall Santa. Kids lit up at the sight of him.
"I felt at peace taking in that scene," he said. "I remember thinking, 'The world is still beautiful.' "
As he was leaving, Russell felt a gloved hand on his shoulder.
"What are you doing in my territory?" the mall Santa asked him.
"What do you mean?" Russell replied.
"Aren't you a Santa?"
"Well, you should be."
After that, everything changed. It was a sign, an epiphany.
Russell Googled "How to be a Santa." He discovered a three-day Santa school in Decatur, Ga., led by a man called Santa Hollywood, who has appeared in commercials and movies.
"The joy, the camaraderie — I loved every second," Russell said. "It just felt right."
He ordered a heavy felt Santa suit from a costumer in Wisconsin and joined a local agency, the Florida Palm Tree Santas. He quickly booked his first gig, an apartment party in Riverview.
Suiting up that afternoon, Russell grew nervous. He still walked stiffly. Did his leg look real enough under the Santa suit?
"What if I scare the kids?" he asked Santa Hollywood by phone.
"John, don't worry," Hollywood said. "The kids won't ever look below your face."
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The Clearwater Santa drives a white Sprinter van labeled: "SANTA 4 HIRE."
Bells tied in his shoelaces jingle as he walks.
At parties, he throws his head back, rubs his belly and shouts, "Ho, ho, ho!"
But if babies are present, he adjusts his volume to a coo: "Ho, ho, ho."
It's a happy routine, Russell says: hugs, pictures, wishes. He keeps the scraps of paper kids give him: "Santa, please bring a puppy."
"I don't know why the Lord lets an old man like me have this much fun," he tells parents, chuckling.
During the holidays, Russell attends his monthly support group for amputees in Largo as Santa, posing for Christmas pictures.
He regularly meets with a Gandy post office employee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident.
Soon, he plans to visit a diabetic man who just lost his legs.
Russell hopes to make them smile again.
"I know what you're feeling," he tells them. "But never, ever give up."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4224. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.