Alumni Spotlight: John O'Brien, '53

Posted by Caitlin Joyce on Wednesday, December 2, 2015 at 1:50 PM PST

This year, many children in Western Washington will not get Christmas dinner, a visit from Santa, or even presents. But thanks to the Forgotten Children’s Fund, up to 100,000 of these children will get a chance to talk to Santa and receive personalized gifts and a full fridge for their Christmas feast. SU basketball legend, John O’Brien, ’53, served as the Forgotten Children’s Fund’s President for ten years and worked as one of their Santas delivering gifts to children for over 35 years.

“There is so much need,” John reflects on his time as Santa. In his years with the Forgotten Children’s Fund, he visited over 750 homes dressed as Santa Claus, toting a bag of hand-wrapped gifts specially selected for each child. While John would sing with the kids and give them their presents, volunteer “elves” would sneak into the family’s kitchen and stock the refrigerator with food for Christmas dinner—a complete surprise for the families. John recalls that, for many children, this visit was their first real Christmas. 


Perhaps the most memorable experience of John’s time in the Santa suit was a little boy named Charles. “One year, I had three youngsters, and one of them was named Charles,” John remembers. John picked a gift out of his bag for Charles, which the mother offered to take in his place. But before John left, she changed her mind: “She said, ‘Santa, would you do me a favor and come say hello to Charles? He hasn’t spoken in months, I’m afraid we’re going to lose him.’” When John entered Charles’ room, he found a sick little boy under a sheet, but “[Charles] saw Santa, and he started talking.” That, John explains, is “the power of the Santa suit.”


For John, putting on the Santa suit was just another way to live the Jesuit mission he came to know as a Seattle University student. He thinks of the Jesuit-educated mindset as “Jesuit ESP: Educate, Stir the Pot, and Prepare.” To John, the Jesuit way is about taking what you’ve learned to the whole community—and being the Santa underprivileged kids wouldn’t otherwise get a visit from is just a small part of that.


While John recently had to hang up his Santa suit for health reasons, he looks back on his time as Santa as a family affair. Both of John’s late brothers, Jim and Ed, participated in the program as Santa until their passing, and now Ed’s son carries on the tradition. But the organization has no problem finding new Santas when one retires the beard—as John says, “Good stuff attracts.”


Now operating in five counties with a “North Pole” base of over 100,000 square feet in Renton, the Forgotten Children’s Fund has expanded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. John remains proud to be involved with them, declaring, “[It’s] a great community.” There are thousands of volunteers, dozens of Santas, and hundreds of thousands of gifts as they enter the 2015 Christmas season, ready to bring joy. Looking back on his time as Santa, John recalls with a smile that “it really made Christmas.” 


You can learn more about volunteering for the Forgotten Children’s Fund as a gift-wrapper, selector, or even a Santa here.

Article by Miranda Benson, '16