• Rod Kackley

Those Who Would Be Santa

No crime story here. Just a holiday greeting to all. It’s an article I wrote that was published in Crain’s Detroit Business on December 17, 2013 as, “Want to be a ho-ho-ho it all? Go to Santa School.”

For this blog, I have retitled it,

Those Who Would Be Santa…

The night before is only 1/365th of the Christmas fun for men like Kraig Haybarker. The Lowell, Mich. man who wears Santa Casual — red flannel shirts and Santa glasses — during his off-seasons, never stops being the man who children all over the world try to stay awake for the night before.

Haybarker never dreamed of being the jolly fellow until he grew his white beard out and a little boy shook his hand said, “Hello Santa.”

Being Santa may be a “calling” for Haybarker, but being good at it is not a given. That’s why he went to school to learn the X’s and O’s of ho, ho, ho’s.

There are two schools in Michigan for those like Haybarker who want to be better Santas and their Mrs. Claus counterparts.

The oldest is the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, founded in 1937.

Tom Valent, the president of Gerace Construction Co. in Midland purchased the school in 1987 and moved it to Midland from Bay City.

Valent and his wife Holly, who is Mrs. Claus to his Santa, run the school as a non-profit 501 (c) 3 corporation. The Santa classes are held in a three-day seminar in October. The 2013 class included 120 students.

Valent said it was their best year, with gross revenue of $50,000. The previous year’s gross revenue was $40,000.

The seminars include classes on how to sing in public, live reindeer habits, and personal hygiene “because the kids are six inches away from you and they expect perfection,” Valent said.

There is also the St.Nicholas Institute in Livonia, started three years ago by Father Joseph Marquis’ at Sacred Heart Byzantine Catholic Church, which is like a masters program for graduates of the Howard school.

Marquis’ goal is to reclaim the historic figure behind the traditional image of Santa Claus for people of faith.

The St. Nicholas Institute is a multi-day seminar to train people to convincingly portray St. Nicholas or Santa “in a wide array of venues, whether they be secular or religious,” Marquis said.

Marquis takes a maximum of 30 students per seminar, all professionals who want to improve their craft.

The first year he had 17 students. In 2013, 30 students enrolled.

Marquis declined to discuss revenue for his school, which is run as a non-profit ministry of the Sacred Heart Byzantine Church, but did credit the sponsorship of Talmer Bank & Trust in Troy with helping to sustain the Institute.

It’s not that Marquis has a problem with the “elfin Santa Claus or the secular manifestation of St. Nicholas,” as he described the traditional image of Father Christmas.

Marquis was the official Santa for J.L. Hudson’s Thanksgiving Parade from the mid-1970s through 1983. He continued riding in the Detroit Thanksgiving Day parade for six years after Hudson’s closed. He was also the J. L. Hudson Santa in the store’s catalogs.

Tony Vitu and his wife Carol are graduates of the St.Nicholas Institute.

Like Haybarker, Christmas Eve is just the frosting on their fruitcake.

Vitu is Santa, and his wife is Mrs. Claus every day of the year.

Vitu couldn’t even stop being Santa in Mexico when he left his Santa suit behind for a pair of blue swim trunks.

“Little Mayan children came running up to me on the beach yelling, ‘Papa Noel, Papa Noel,’” he said. “When you have a natural beard you can’t stop being Santa.”

Vitu wants to take what he learned at the St. Nicholas Institute and create a one-man show to teach his audience about the fourth-century Greek bishop who is the historical godfather of the man called Santa Claus seventeen centuries later.

The Institute and the Charles W. Howard School worked for “Santa” Norm Gerring too.

Gerring, a resident of Lincoln Park, is a co-founder of the Michigan Association of Professional Santas, a social organization, that he and two other Santas in Wayne County started in 2009.

They wanted to offer support to others “called” to the red suit and beard.

“While it was a very merry job, It’s not like you could go to the local anyplace and meet another Santa,” Gerring said.

What began as a three-Santa group is now 189 Santas-strong, ranging in age from 22 to 79, with the 190th application on file.

Twenty-nine of the Santas in the Michigan Association of Professional Santas are from outside Michigan.

“We don’t encourage that, but we meet Santas from outside the area who want to join and I don’t have the heart to say ‘no,’” Gerring said.

He is Santa, right?

Because they are on-duty 365 days a year, Haybarker, Vitu, Gerring, and Marquis said they always have to be ready to offer curbside counseling to children and adults.

Marquis said people tend to open up to him more when they see him as Santa, then when they see him as a priest.

“All of the defense mechanisms drop,” Marquis said. “There is an automatic trust that comes with portraying this character.”

Marquis has found there are times when Santa has to do even more than that, including celebrating Christmas on an unseasonably hot day in June for a four-year-old cancer patient who had only a few weeks to live.

Her grandfather gave her a blue dress. Marquis gave her a Raggedy Ann doll, and a button that read, “Santa says I am a good girl.”

“Ten days later, her grandfather called to tell me they had just buried the child with the doll, the dress and the button,” Marquis said.

“And I thought to myself maybe this was the real reason I became Santa Claus.”


"Believe in love. Believe in magic. Hell, believe in Santa Claus. Believe in others. Believe in yourself. Believe in your dreams. If you don't, who will?" -- Jon Bon Jovi.

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