MADISON, Wis. — Henry Sudduth's life started off bad and got worse, but the pudgy, white-bearded, balding man said that without those experiences he couldn't do what he does best--be Santa Claus.
Sudduth was an abused child and spent time in an outlaw motorcycle gang before a stint in the Marines and marriage helped turn his life around. He has spent the last 14 years as "Madison's Santa Claus," refurbishing and distributing toys to needy children.
"The kids let me into their lives every day," he said. "They can relate to me. I know what they're going through. I have not been Mr. Lily White, but every bit of it gave me a deep knowledge of children I'll never forget."
The 55-year-old Sudduth, who also works as an apartment manager, works year-round with a group of volunteer elves to collect and repair old toys in his workshop and distribute them to needy children.
Although he never stops being Santa, the holidays--obviously--are his busiest time of year.
"When Christmas comes, I lose track of everything," he said.
But Sudduth, who doesn't need pillows or a false beard to look like Santa, said this Christmas holds special meaning.
"I'm just thankful to be alive," he said, his eyes squinting and his red, round cheeks jiggling with each giggle. "And I'm thankful for all these fantastic people in this town. They blew me away when I was in the hospital."
Sudduth suffered a brain aneurysm in November, 1988, that required surgery and left him in the hospital for three weeks.
When residents discovered that Sudduth did not have health insurance they started a "Get Well Santa" fund and raised more than $41,000.
"The people came through for someone in need, just like he does every day for people in need," said Don Dahnke, owner of Don's Hallmark, who donated space for Santa's workshop.
Dahnke said his suppliers of toys, stuffed animals and candy used to think he was joking when he told them about Sudduth and asked for donations, but "they don't think it's a joke anymore."
Sudduth's network of thousands of volunteers reaches across Wisconsin and throughout the nation, but even if he had no help, he would still be giving, friends said.
"I know he's gone down to $2 in his checkbook to make sure people would have a Christmas dinner," Dahnke said.
Sudduth refuses to accept money for being Santa, saying "you can't give to those who give."
He used to hang uncashed checks on his walls and he has a frame of them in his crowded workshop, including a blank one made out to "Mr. S. Claus."
Sudduth's wife, Kathy, has long, wavy hair parted in the middle, wears round, metal-framed glasses and is often called "Mrs. Claus." Mr. Claus says she turned his life around.
Ironically, Sudduth did not choose his first Santa assignment 32 years ago; he was drafted. He was a Marine staff sergeant and was pulled out of his barracks to play Santa "because they needed someone fat."
These days, it's a labor of love. Sudduth drives a 1972 Dodge with a holiday-style paint job and hugs everyone he meets--something he hasn't always done.
"I was a very abused child," he said, with his usually jolly voice turning solemn. "I equated that violence with love, and I thought I was spreading that love with violence."
Sudduth, whose mother died of cancer when he was 14, said he spent time in California as the president of a motorcycle gang before moving to the Midwest.
"I went there looking for brotherhood and love," he said. "But it wasn't there. It's not anywhere but in your heart. I didn't know that then, but I do now."