Linda Messmer photo
By LINDA MESSMER
A steady flow of friendly and familiar faces turned out at First Christian Church on Saturday to honor Bill Beeler, otherwise known as Santa Claus.
The man who has portrayed the jolly Christmas elf for 57 years was honored by the Christmas in the Park Committee. Many people came to thank him and to reminisce with Beeler, who has made the world a happier place for all the young at heart.
"Three generations of my family have sat on this Santa's lap," said Jody Thomas as she fondly draped her arm over Beeler's shoulder and gave him a hug. "I sat on Santa's lap the first time when I was about 10-years-old. My daughter, Becky Wallen, sat on his lap as a child. And my parents, Jane and the late Bill Litz, sat on Santa's lap too."
The tales abounded from the many who recalled their childhood memories with this Santa.
"He's the real Santa," said Rhea Hood. "All the rest are just helpers." Hood is a cousin to Beeler. "He came to our house on Christmas Eve every year, no matter how busy he was," she continued. "It always amazed my kids that Santa knew their names."
Rosemary Green, Hood's mother and Beeler's aunt added her thoughts about Santa. "His mother made his first Santa Claus suit," Green said. "She did a terrific job. Bill always sang "White Christmas." He sang without music. It was the highlight of the night. The kids were always very attentive. You could hear a pin drop.
"Oh, sometimes some of the little kids might be afraid of him for a while," Green continued. "But it didn't take them long to warm up to Santa. And, of course, he gave us candy and told us to be good."
Marshall Hendrix, a big man with white hair, came up and sat on Beeler's lap. The two men hugged and laughed.
"We've known each other all our lives," Beeler explained. "We were raised together down on south Alabama Street. I can tell you a story about Marshall that I'll never forget.
"Before the bridges were put in at Forest Park you just had to walk down the hill and up the other side right through the water. It wasn't all that deep but it was wet.
"Marshall got a new coaster wagon. He said, 'I bet you're afraid to go down the hill in my wagon.' We were about four or five."
Beeler grinned, looking at Hendrix as he continued his story in his slow, baritone voice.
"I said, 'Oh, no, I'm not'. I got in and Marshall gave it a little push to get me started. I went down that hill, in the water and hit the bank on the other side. It knocked the front wheels off the wagon, tipped over and I got soaked.
"He went home crying saying I broke his wagon. I went home crying saying he got me all wet. We both went home crying."
Now both men laughed and laughed remembering the childhood memory.
Then the new mayor-elect, Tom Arthur, and his wife, Penny, came up to Beeler with their little girl, Tara.
Penny gently placed her one-year-old daughter on Beeler's lap. He immediately lit up looking like Santa even in his business suit and tie.
Beeler offered Tara a toy Santa he was holding. She had a bit of a scowl bordering between curiosity and fear and a look on her face that said, "Who are you?"
Beeler spoke softly to the little girl and moved the toy about as if it were walking but he kept it back at a safe distance. Finally Tara reached for the toy Santa and grinned.
"In case you're wondering," Beeler beamed, "this is what it's all about."