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Tampa Bay Santas recall their most poignant moments

Santa's Calling, St. Petersburg

Santa called Grant at home Thursday to ask about Christmas. Grant, who is 5, complied.

"I want a Ninja Turtle and a big huge monster truck, but not that big, and a little turtle, but not a Ninja Turtle because I already said that, a turtle like George..."

"Well," said Santa. "That's a lot of ..."

"... and a big, huge roller coaster, and well, it's not that big, and a Transformer guy and Robin and the Batman house with the thing in it and, uhhh ... that's it."

Santa was Patrick Green, who is 62. He is a retired merchant marine, and for 14 years, he has played one of many St. Nicks in the city of St. Petersburg's Santa's Calling program, which surprises little ones with magical phone calls over three nights.

The Santas are firefighters, members of the School Board and City Council, city workers, Toastmasters. They respond to sheets filled out by parents listing Susie's favorite toys and the dog's name and the sticky behavioral areas that only a bequest from Santa can fix.

"You always want to end on a positive note," said Alexis Shuder, volunteer coordinator for the project. "Santa is real proud of you."

Most of the calls are happy-go-lucky. But this year, one form had a different request. There was no money for toys, it said, just a pair of pajamas. Please don't talk about presents, Santa.

Some firefighters called the home and went through the motions. After hanging up, though, they called the parents back.

Maybe they weren't Santa, but could they buy presents for the family anyway?

Santa Bob Elkin, Lutz

As a hospice volunteer, Santa Bob Elkin sees life is in its final stages. He visited a family in New Port Richey last week where a great-grandmother lay ill.

"They desperately wanted to get a picture of the four generations for the little girl," said Santa.

Santa posed with a 2-year-old girl, her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother.

For Santa, it didn't sink in right away.

"You know, it's so... it's so thoughtful after it takes place," he said. "When it's in the moment, you have to not think about what the moment means. It's just a group of people. After you leave and think about it and reflect, sometimes you think of the tragic sides and the thought-provoking sides. But you try and just stay in the moment."

Santa Larry Waibel, International Plaza

Everyone from toddlers to dogs have visited the lap of Santa Larry Waibel at his International Plaza throne. But one particular visit sticks out in his mind.

This year, an 18-year-old autistic woman sat on his lap, more excited than any child to see him. Santa asked what she wanted for Christmas. She didn't have a list.

"I just want my mommy to be happy," she said.

Santa Dave Smith, Spring Hill

Santa Dave Smith's friend — an Elvis impersonator, of course — called one day to tell him about Ethan Raske, a 4-year-old boy in New Port Richey suffering from a litany of medical problems ranging from brain damage to reflux to lung disease to an immune disorder. His parents saved Ethan's cord blood, but they need $50,000 to pay for treatment. They fear time is running out.

Santa Dave has become the family's favorite Santa, appearing at their fundraisers, including one tonight at Beef 'O' Brady's in Land O'Lakes. Ethan is too sick to come out, but his family is always there, including sister Ella, who is 21/2.

"She's a cute little son of a gun," said Santa. "At first, she wouldn't come near me."

But eventually, she toddled up and asked for something.

"Help my brother."

Santa Greg Clarke, St. Petersburg

By day, Santa Greg Clarke is a building inspector, but he moonlights in St. Petersburg's Santa Parade. He also visits local nursing homes. This year, he met with an ill woman who wasn't responding to anyone.

From his appraisal, she was in her late 60s or early 70s. He thought about what he could say. What might trigger her?

"I remember you," he said. "I remember when you were a little girl and you wanted that Shirley Temple doll."

The woman looked up. She opened her blue eyes.

"Yes," she said.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Tampa Bay Santas recall their most poignant moments 12/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 18, 2009 11:14pm]
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