Larry Butler, who doubles as computer specialist in Facilities Services, had a red beard for the longest time. But then it started to get a little grayer and a little grayer, and then in 2004, it went completely white. For Butler, who's been at SU for 30 years, it was pretty clear what he needed to do—he pulled on a red suit and never looked back. Wearing a "casual Friday" version of his garb (right), Butler recently shared his thoughts on being Santa, including some memories he's preserved in a scrapbook.
The Commons: All right. So many questions...Where to start?...What sorts of gigs have you had?
Santa: I started visiting children at Northgate for four years. Then I got the opportunity to work for a local photo group Arthur and Associates, which had Macy’s, downtown. This year I will have the opportunity to be at Pacific Place and Bellevue Square. I also will visit with a few other groups.
The Commons: What are some of those side jobs?
Santa: I’ve been Santa for an annual AA meeting. I auction myself off at fundraisers at church—the same family has won me three years in a row!—and for Al-Anon. And then I do some events for family and friends. I also belong to a talent agency, and they’ll send me some jobs.
The Commons: What’s the most memorable moment you’ve had as Santa?
Santa: A lady came in, probably in her mid-30s, and she said, “I’d like to take a picture with you and I have an unusual request—I need a kidney transplant.” I said, “I don’t know if I can help you, but I can pray for you.” We took a picture, and it didn’t come out very well, so she came back and wanted another picture taken. I stood up with her this time and we took a picture, and for some reason, a reflection off the backdrop formed a halo around her head. So that’s the most memorable.
The Commons: What’s the youngest kid to ever come through the line?
Santa: I think the youngest one I had was four or five days old, Pretty much straight from the hospital. By the way the oldest child was 95.
The Commons: What kinds of requests do you get?
Santa: Some of the kids come with a list that’s, you know, 10 miles long. So I ask them to pick out two or three that are most important to them. One kid came in with a long list like that and at the very bottom, for the last item, he wrote, “All of these.” (Laughs)
The Commons: Ah, a loophole.
Santa: Yes. So I said, “That’s not quite what I asked,” and we got it down to something more manageable.
The Commons: How long are your shifts?
Santa: About six hours. I have some double shifts on Sundays. We start the day after Thanksgiving and go right up to Christmas Eve.
The Commons: On a busy day, how many people come through?
Santa: Probably two or three hundred.
The Commons: Do you have your own suit?
Santa: Yes. The company I work for also provides a suit so I don’t have to wear mine all the time.
The Commons: Does it get pretty hot in there?
The Commons: Pretty quickly?
Santa: Well (pauses)…Yeah, pretty quickly (laughs). I’d like to see them put a fan in there somehow.
The Commons: Do you get any kind of special training to be Santa Claus?
Santa: Not really. You learn by hard knocks. I do belong to an organization (the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas) that has about 400 or 500 members. They have a yearly get-together back east. There are 24 real bearded Santa Clauses that work for the company I’m with. They’re also out in the malls and places like that, and we have an annual meeting before the Christmas season starts.
The Commons: What sorts of things do you talk about in those meetings?
Santa: Kind of “Santa instructions”—how to improve, how to interact with the customer and the public. We’re lucky that the company we work for has really good photographers and elves that help, so we don’t have to do a whole lot. We just have to be there and talk to the kids. When it’s real busy, you only have a couple minutes to talk to them, but the majority of the time I’ve been working, that doesn’t happen until probably a week or two before Christmas. (Before it gets busy) is a good time to bring in the little ones, when there’s a lot of crying. I bring books, and try to calm them down.
The Commons: What are some of the keys to being Santa?
Santa: To me, it was the beard. I wouldn’t have done it if I had to wear a fake beard. You also have to be ready for whatever’s thrown your way. You never know what’s coming. And of course (another key is) loving children. I have five kids and six grandkids so that comes pretty naturally for me.
The Commons: What do the grandkids think about all this?
Santa: They know that I’m Santa—and they expect it! They’re still believers, so that’s cool. They tell their friends and their friends, of course, say, “Santa can’t be your grandfather!” And then my grandkids show them a picture of me in my suit, and sure enough…
The Commons: That proves it beyond any reasonable doubt. What about your wife—or should I say “Mrs. Claus?”—what does she think?
Santa: She wants to go to the North Pole (laughs). She wants the elves to come help clean the house.
The Commons: So, what’s on Santa’s wish list this year?
Santa: See as many kids as possible and make them happy for that window of time. A lot of kids I see have cancer or other illnesses, so my hope is that I’m able to give them a happy moment.
The Commons: And how about your alter ego, Larry? What’s on his wish list?
Larry: I’m not one of wants, but I’d love to have a good camera.
The Commons: This is getting confusing. Who would you bring a request like that to?
Larry: Santa will probably take care of that one.
The Commons: Of course. So, Santa, what are the biggest challenges of being Santa?
Santa: You know, I don’t see the challenges. I love doing it. I look forward to every day and love how every day is different. Another cool thing about being in a mall is you have a lot of people that walk the mall on a regular basis, so you befriend these people. When I was at Northgate, there were two guys in wheelchairs with MS who stopped by every day. So we gave them a free picture. There was one lady who came by every day and never failed to give me a candy Kiss. You know, it’s the small stuff that starts adding up.
The Commons: Think you’ll do this for a while?
Santa: I’ll do it until I can’t do it anymore.