By Jim Krencik
Medina Journal-Register — There are many recognizable characters that will float above New York City today as part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but the star attraction is of course the man in the big red suit — a tradition that one of Orleans County’s favorite sons brought to millions in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
If there was a Mt. Rushmore of the men whose creativity and dedication set the tone for how the spirit of Santa Claus is presented and celebrated in America, Charles Howard’s visage would surely be permanently etched in stone beneath his traditional red and white hat, with the puff hanging from a string.
That would be a fitting tribute for Howard, who was the featured attraction of the parade for 18 years, but far more reasonable efforts both locally and nationally are ensuring that Howard’s spirit is part of every Santa experience.
The Man in the Red Suit
In addition to going down in history as the “Dean of Professional Santa Clauses,” Howard is well-remembered for his ingenuity, commitment to his community and caring charm. Ken McPherson, an enthusiastic admirer of Howard, has Howard’s boots in addition to a house full of Christmas Park artifacts, but said no one could fill them.
”It’s just remarkable, astonishing that someone had that drive,” McPherson said. “I could live 10 lifetimes and not be able to do what he did.”
Howard, who had a toy business and ice cream shop, turned his Albion farm into Christmas Park, the ultimate holiday attraction for a generation of local children. His touches on the Santa suit are still seen as hallmarks thanks to a suit-making business that lived on for 25 years after his passing.
”He wanted it done right,” McPherson said.
A decade earlier, Howard’s home hosted one of the first classes for training Santa Clauses, where the details of how to properly present the fabled gift-giver were developed and imparted to students from across the nation.
“It was the Mecca of training Santas,” said Phillip Wenz, a professional Santa who studies and is an active promoter of the story of men like Howard and Jim Yellig, “The Real Santa from Santa Claus, Ind.,” who was the resident Claus at the world’s first theme park. Wenz joined both Howard and Yellig as charter inductees into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.
“They were the catalysts — Howard went into teaching and costuming; Yellig did the theme park,” Wenz explained. “Their’s are the shoulders we stand on.”
“He helped to define what he felt Santa should represent, it’s important to be admired and respected,” said Jane Holland, Howard’s granddaughter. “He told them that it was a privilege, not a job.”
Many Merry Memories
After decades of Howard’s story confined to the minds of local residents and a group of former students preserving what they could, the memories are now flooding out. McPherson is always ready to talk about Howard with those who were able to experience him firsthand.
”I find it to be an honor, because (Howard) is so important for local history,” McPherson said. “I’ve talked with hundreds and hundreds of people about Charlie and Christmas Park ... you can see the beaming when they just so much as hear his name mentioned. They start thinking of past days and the magic of it.”
He also forms a bridge to the next generation of Howard fans. The service learning class at Albion Middle School was involved with the 2010 Charles Howard Day festivities, and McPherson continues to make appearances to spread Howard’s story.
”It’s a highlight of the year,” service learning teacher Tim Archer said. “The kids are just at that age where they can take in all of the magic.”
McPherson said he always tells students to make sure their parents and grandparents hear that they’ve now learned about Howard, which germinates memories that can connect back to a happier time.
”I don’t know if it’d be spoken of without a little nudge,” McPherson said.
Keeping Christmas Park
and the Santa School Alive
Jane Holland was very young when Howard passed away, but she has warm memories of her grandparents’ Albion homestead, which was built by one of her great-grandfathers for one of her other great-grandfathers. The property is now a private residence, although a classroom structure survives today.
“We loved running around the park,” Holland reminisced. “There was so much to do, it was a real fun family time. We’d stay there at Christmas and although he was exhausted, Grandpa made us feel special.”
While Christmas Park did not survive the financial difficulties that came in the park’s fourth decade, the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School is still a popular destination for professional clauses. This October, Tom and Holly Valent hosted McPherson and more than 100 other Clauses for three days of instruction at the Midland, Mich. school.
“They come from all walks of life,” Tom said. “There is a spirit that grows in all of us ... Santa stands for all good things.”
The school’s current Mr. and Mrs. Claus were students at the Bay City, Mich.-version of the school under Nate Doan, who himself was a frequent attendee of Howard’s school and carried on the courses at his Michigan home after Howard’s death. The Valents took on the school in 1987 and haven’t looked back.
The Valents, originally from Salamanca, did not get the full school experience from Howard — although Holly once sat on his knee at Christmas Park — but they use many of the lessons that Howard taught more than 60 years ago while contributing additional instruction on business and accounting, hair styling and story telling.
“It’s a lot of work, but I love it because it makes people happy,” Valent said.
Celebrating a Local Treasure
Carol Culhane, who is leading an effort to open a local history museum in Albion, has been a magnet for older residents looking to keep Howard’s legacy going on for years to come.
“The affection involved, how they cherish those memories — it’s real cool stuff,” said Culhane, who worked with Wenz, McPherson, Holland and many others to establish Charles W. Howard Day.
The 2010 celebration brought dozens of pilgrimaging men and women to a day of events at the First United Methodist Church, where Howard worshiped, his gravesite at Mt. Albion Cemetery and a number of locations in Albion. A presentation that Wenz assembled including images and video of Howard was a big highlight, as was the Santa dance on the Courthouse Square.
“Albion was alive in a big way that day, everyone was smiling and holding their heads high,” McPherson said.
“The support of the local people was overwhelming, I never expected such a big turnout,” said Holland. “It was sad in the respect that my mother’s and grandparent’s friends are gone, but the interest from the younger generations was heartening ... I felt the love of his spirit that day.”
Planning is under way for a larger event in 2015. Wenz is looking to bring the Santa Claus Convention held at Yellig’s hometown in Indiana in 2011 and 2013 “on the road” to where Howard devoted his life’s work. Funding is also being raised for a statue honoring Howard by the men and women who have used Howard’s lessons in their lives.
“(Professional) Santas are starting to take a look at the foundations of their work,” said Wenz, who himself has donned the red suit in parades and at the theme park for 200 days each year for a quarter century. “When I study them, and I’ve gotten to live that life, I know that if it wasn’t for Charles Howard and Jim Yellig ... I wouldn’t be here.”
Committed to Claus
Medina native Chris Parada’s Santa Claus Christmas Cottage in Lockport is both a shrine to Howard and a continuation of the experience he made for children. More than 10,000 children visited the park, which will be open on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays this December.
“There’s a warm glow in this room,” Parada said while doing preparations at the cottage in November. “It’s all about developing an experience ... whether it’s a real or fake beard, kids just want to share in the magic.”
Inside the cottage, a wall of black-and-white photos from Christmas Park adorn an area that stretches from Parada’s sleigh to a 1940s vintage suit that was made in Albion. While Parada has added his own touches, like giving out Santa Dust to the visiting children, there is much he pulls from Howard’s instructions.
“I read his book every year,” Parada said. “It re-inspires me.”Contact reporter Jim Krencik at 798-1400, ext. 6327.