On Black Friday, his foot soldiers were already stationed on the front line. After today, their tour of duty will be complete — at least for 2008. Then, it's all in their commander-in-chief's hands. As Santa Claus prepares to climb into his sleigh for his annual trek to the four corners of the world, we wanted to salute two in his rank and file. Richard Sheldon, 72, retired from the Clearwater wastewater management department. He has watched Miracle on 34th Street countless times. Since November, the great-grandfather has logged 31 appearances as St. Nick. He'll spend Christmas Eve at Christ Presbyterian Church of Largo, singing in the choir at the 7 p.m. service. Steven Sorrells, 37, is a senior general ledger analyst for Able Body Labor, based in Clearwater. He counts The Preacher's Wife, with Denzel Washington, as his favorite holiday flick. The soft-spoken father of two wore the famed red suit for one performance this year. Sorrells, chairman of the YMCA of the Suncoast Greater Ridgecrest Branch, appeared at the organization's Breakfast With Santa on Saturday. On Christmas Eve, he plans a quiet night with his family, touring the area looking at Christmas lights and "going over everything we have to be thankful for.'' Our two Largo Santas agreed on the No. 1 tip they'd give aspiring Santas: To be Santa, you need to love kids.
Some 200 children, including his daughter, Arielle, 10, and son, Antonio, 7, eagerly awaited Breakfast With Santa.
What did you tell your own children about your Santa visit? I assume they still believe, at least your younger one, right?
Yes. I told them that Santa needed helpers on Saturday, and I was filling in.
You don't have a booming ho-ho-ho voice. How does your soft and calm voice work as Santa?
Actually, I got so many compliments last year. People said that some of the kids would never go to Santa, but they came to me. Maybe the calm part helps.
Where did you spend Christmas when you were growing up?
I grew up in the Ridgecrest area.
How did you picture Santa Claus when you were little?
I pictured him as the traditional white Santa Claus in pictures.
Do you think the kids here picture Santa like you did?
Yes, I think so. One of the reasons I love doing this is knowing they see a Santa that resembles them. But most of all, Santa's message is love. It's all about love.
After playing nine holes of golf, Santa dashed home for a shower and a quick blow dry. About 10:15 a.m., this Santa and Mrs. Claus, married since 1958, sneaked into the side door at Florida's First Start Center in Largo to visit with 70 children.
Are you concerned that kids are going to read this in the St. Petersburg Times and think that Santa is a fake?
But I'm not a fake. Santa is as real as we are.
The Times learned of your existence through the city of Largo's program Santa's House Calls. Can you tell us about that?
I first decided I wanted to be Santa from seeing a 60 Minutes segment. It was on a gentleman who worked as Santa. I turned off the TV and told my wife, "I want to be Santa, too.'' I started appearing at the Festival of Trees in 2000, and I gradually added more events. With Largo, it was about three years ago. I read they were looking for Santas. I walked into Highland Rec dressed as a civilian, but remember, my white hair and beard is mine. The workers said, "Hi, Santa."
Do you have stage fright?
Nope. Santa is big and bold.
You have a heck of a responsibility. Kids sometimes ask for some big toys.
I learn by doing. You don't promise things that are out of this world.
Have you ever performed an intervention with a very naughty child?
I never think kids are that naughty, but I will say that there are moms who have given me a thumbs-up behind their child's back as they leave.