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Irascible Retiree Plays Real-Life Santa : He May Not Be Jolliest, But He Gets the Job Done

December 22, 1987|LYNN STEINBERG | Times Staff Writer

There are no sleighs or reindeer at Ray Messerly's house.

He drives a black van, raises pit bulls and barks orders to friends and family in a loud, hoarse voice.

But since 1953, this irascible St. Nick, a short, stocky man who walks with a limp, has brought joy to more than 2,000 fatherless children at Christmas.

Social service agencies give him the names and ages of the children. He carefully records them on yellow paper and then enters the total number in his scrapbook.

It is a mission that began when one of his own children--he says he can't remember which one--shocked him by showing utter disregard for the plight of the poor. "It's their problem," the child said on that Christmas Day 34 years ago.

Messerly remembers feeling hurt.

'Help 10 Families'

"Go ahead and open all your presents," he told the child at the time. "But next year, before you open a single one, before you eat one spoon of food, we will help give Christmas to 10 needy families."

Messerly has been playing Santa Claus ever since, digging deep into his own pockets.

Every night for the past year, just as he has in previous years, Messerly--a retired aircraft mechanic who depends on odd jobs and Social Security for a living--dropped all his spare change into a cigar box.

By Thanksgiving, he had saved more than $300, about half of what he figured he would need. So he went knocking on doors.

Green Arrow Nurseries in Sepulveda donated several Christmas trees. The Van Nuys Optimists gave $200. Friends chipped in some.

And, over the weekend, the tradition that Messerly started more than three decades ago continued.

At 65, with a heart condition and hands twisted by arthritis, Messerly delivered trees, baskets of food and the brightly wrapped presents that he and his wife, Kay, had bought, to six poor San Fernando Valley families. He will make another delivery to two more families before Christmas Day.

"I'm not one of those Sunday Christians," he said between stops. "I haven't been to church in many years. My church is in my heart."

Children rushed from their homes in a run-down Pacoima trailer park Saturday morning when they saw Messerly approaching with his family and friends, bearing gifts and food.

"Are you the man?" asked one little boy, his shining eyes fixed on the bag of presents, a smile lighting up his face.

"Thank you! Thank you!" he said after the boxes were neatly placed on his living room floor. "Merry Christmas."

This year's recipients were selected by Sister Mary Dominic, founder and director of the Home Visitation Center in Pacoima, which helps families in need. Messerly made only one request of her: He wanted single mothers and children.

Doesn't Chat

"I won't take families with husbands," he said, waving his finger through the air for emphasis. "I feel a man can earn a living."

Messerly vigorously guards the identity of the people he assists. To do otherwise, he said, would embarrass them and invade their privacy.

The families know almost nothing about their private Santa Claus, and Messerly likes it that way. He makes his deliveries and leaves. He does not like to chat.

"I don't want them to feel they have to get down on their knees and thank me," he said. He says he just wants to help--a desire not limited to the holiday season. For the past two years, Messerly has chaired a speech contest for hearing-impaired children and has coached young athletes for the blind Olympics.

He says children are his first love, animals his second. His Sepulveda house is like a farm.

Married for 43 years, Raymond and Kay Messerly have spent 26 of them at this two-story house. They have five children, all pictured as toddlers in family photo albums placing canned goods in Christmas boxes for the poor.

Outside the family, Messerly's work draws praise and support from friends and associates.

"He's a real Santa Claus for families every year; he gives them Christmas," said Chuck Reichhardt, president of the Van Nuys Optimist Club.

Brutally Honest

But for all his good will, friends say, Messerly can try the nerves of an angel. He can, they say, be brutally honest, stubborn and abrasive.

He is prone to shouting and can make a conversation seem like an assault--the result, he said, of working around planes with loud engines for most of his life, always struggling to be heard.

He prides himself on being tough and disregards warnings from his doctors to get more rest.

"I'm 65 years old," Messerly said, "and no one's going to knock me down."

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