When Jim Depto puts on the red suit and high, black boots, something magical happens.
There is the magic he sees in children's faces when they look up at him and see the old fellow for whom he fills in. For a few moments he becomes Santa Claus, just as real as if he had just stepped out of a sled pulled by eight levitating reindeer.
Sometimes they will give a little tug on his beard and discover that, yes, it grows out of that jolly face.
Times Observer photo by Brian Collins
Donning the suit
Jim Depto’s suit hangs next to his fireplace. Shy of the camera and recognition, he has filled in for Santa Claus for more than 50 years. Children can see Santa at the Veteran’s Club in Clarendon on Dec. 16.
For children in Warren County, Santa Claus is very real.
It's been over 50 years since he first donned the red suit, strapped on the belt, and filled his bag with gifts for boys and girls around the county. With the exception of a four-year period when he was serving in Vietnam, Santa Claus has been bringing joy to area children every Christmas since he was 18. (That's right, even Santa has fought for our country.) Even then, he came home on leave one year to deliver toys and holiday cheer.
Back when he first started, Jim would make the rounds on Christmas Eve. Starting in Youngsville to Warren, Jackson Run to Sheffield, and as far as Ludlow, he and his helpers would make anywhere from 30 to 40 stops bringing presents for everyone.
"I bought, wrapped and delivered my own presents for everybody," he recalled. "Oranges, crayons, coloring books...it wasn't a big deal for me to spend the money. It made it worth it when I saw the smile on their faces."
Santa's helpers have also been busy over the years whether they were keeping track of time, driving Santa on his yearly route, or preparing for events around the county. "There was always a general schedule, but the children never knew when I was coming. Sometimes I'd have to rely on my helpers to keep me on schedule," said Jim. "God bless my helpers. It's hard to stay on schedule and still do a good job for everyone, but they kept me going."
He remembers a lot of the children, but one in particular stands out. "There was a little boy and he loved dinosaurs. I went to him for six or seven years in a row and he was still waiting for me and he still believed. The look on his face each year as he got a different dinosaur was worth every special shopping trip I'd make to find him one."
Though the county-wide tour ended four or five years ago, Jim hasn't retired completely from his holiday tradition. Nowadays, regular appearances for the Special Olympics, the Veteran's Club in Clarendon and other small events are enough to keep the now 69-year-old Santa Claus plenty busy.
"It's always for the kids. Any ray of hope that will put a twinkle in their eye is all I need," he said.