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For many people, wearing the beard and the boots and dispensing gifts is just a pleasant holiday job. For a few, however, it takes on a deeper, more personal meaning. : Christmas Chooses Some Special Santas

December 25, 1988|ASHLEY DUNN | Times Staff Writer

Each year thousands of Santa Clauses around the country don their redvelvet suits and head out for shopping malls, schools and hospitals to listen to the Christmas dreams of children.

For many Santas, wearing the frosty white beard and jet-black boots is just a pleasurable winter job that helps bring in a little extra money for Christmas.

But out of the thousands, there are a few for whom becoming Santa is a deeply personal experience.

Each has his own story. Here are two.

It was on Kathleen Marie Conner's ninth birthday that her parents learned she had cancer. The tumor showed up on an X-ray as a dark, thumb-sized half moon; in a little less than a year, it spread through her body like an ugly web and eventually choked off her life.

During that year, doctors at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte tried to control the disease, but in 1976, 10 days before her 10th birthday, "she closed her eyes, just like the lights going dim," said her father, Don Conner.

Many acts of kindness are never meant to be repaid, but Conner, a burly, 58-year-old flooring contractor, felt he owed a debt of gratitude to the hospital for its efforts to save his daughter's life.

How he eventually began to repay that debt is a story about hives and a beard he forgot to shave off.

It was just after Thanksgiving in 1982 that Conner came down with a case of hives and a variety of other diseases.

"I got deathly sick," he said. "I mean, I had hives, hay fever, a bacterial infection and who knows what else. I couldn't for the life of me stop itching."

Nothing seemed to do any good. "Needless to say, shaving wasn't on my mind. I just let my beard grow."

His illness dragged on for weeks. In the meantime, the white stubble on his cheek blossomed into a billowy white beard that made him look like the spitting image of a Norman Rockwell Santa.

At first Conner paid no attention to his transformation, but he kept running into children who marveled out loud at seeing Santa in street clothes.

His illness went away after Christmas, and it dawned on him that here was his chance to repay City of Hope.

"Enough time had passed to where I thought I could deal with it," he said. "I'm not a rich man, but I felt a debt of gratitude to City of Hope for everything they did."

The hospital already had a Santa for its annual Christmas party but needed someone to visit patients who were too sick to attend.

"I told them, 'That's exactly what I want to do,' " he said.

Conner borrowed a Santa suit and, accompanied by two friends dressed up as Mrs. Claus and an elf, made his first visit.

He passed the same rooms that his daughter had been in and saw many patients who, like his daughter, were struggling for life.

"When I left a lot of rooms, I knew I wouldn't be seeing them again next year," Conner said. "I saw a lot of parents going through the same things I went through."

After that first trip, Conner found that what had begun as a way of repaying the City of Hope had become something he enjoyed and wanted to do again.

He has returned to the hospital every year since, striding into each room, sometimes just to stand quietly and leave a present, other times bursting into a back-slapping, belly-laughing routine with Mrs. Claus and Ding Dong the elf. "I do it from the heart," he said. "It really grows on you."

Toni Carreras-Irwin, who is in charge of the hospital's Christmas activities, said about six Santas come to the hospital each year, although most are associated with groups such as the Rotary Club or the Boy Scouts. Conner is one of two Santas who come on their own.

"He spends time with everyone," she said. "It takes forever, and he drives me crazy. The patients love him."

Conner, who has two grown children and lives alone in a cluttered converted garage in Redlands, said he never wants to stop being Santa. "It just makes my whole damn year," he said. "The day after Christmas I trim my beard and let it grow out again. By the next Christmas, I'm ready."

He said he sometimes feels sad walking through the parts of the hospital he remembers from when his daughter was ill. But he is comforted by the thought that his daughter would have approved of what he is doing.

"Hardly a day doesn't go by that I don't think of her. A lot of the stamina I get, I feel I get from my daughter because she was a courageous girl," Conner said. "I think she'd be proud of me."

Bob Mack's entry into Santadom started when his niece was searching for a Santa to entertain her little cousins one Christmas six years ago.

Mack, a 61-year-old plumber who lives in Pomona, had never played Santa before but figured it would be no problem entrancing some youngsters for a few hours. He used a Santa suit his niece had and went to her party thinking that would be it.

But afterwards, Mack's sister, a nurse in Upland, suggested that as long as he was dressed for the part, why not visit some children at the Home of Angels, a nursing facility in Ontario that cares for severely deformed and disabled children?

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