To be clear for younger readers, Santa Claus is not retiring. The Santa at the North Pole will still be making his rounds this Christmas, and he will never stop working as long as people believe. However, one of his long-time representatives in the Newton area is stepping down.
Bill West, 70, who for more than a decade and a half has donned the crimson suit for Santa, is retiring. He was one of the busiest Santa representatives in the Newton area — visiting schools, nursing homes, hospitals and being the official Santa for the annual Salvation Army Toy Run and the annual Newton Lion's Club Parade of Lights.
“I have had a good time, man, I have had a good time,” West told The Kansan. “ … I probably get more hugs in December than most people get in a lifetime. Not just kids, either. I still have high school kids who have to come and hug Santa, even the guys.”
He made the announcement of his retirement on “Leon Day,” posting to Facebook he was stepping away from Santa's service. Leon, he said, is “Noel” spelled backwards. Leon Day, which no one knows who started, marks the halfway point between two Christmases.
“I thought that was appropriate, to give people a warning,” West said.
There's no one thing that led him to retire, but over the years health issues have arisen. Those have, it appears, finally got the better of West.
“It's hard when you don't look sick,” West said. “... Nothing happens by accident. I have been, in a way, excited this is happening. Now I get to see what else is happening. I am not dead yet.”
But he said the time has come for him to stop being Santa.
“I can't do what I need to do, like picking up a kid,” West said. “Things on me hurt. It's all a big ball of wax.”
He believes he is now in remission, treated for cancer the past several years. His last chemo treatment was nearly 70 days ago. That alone is not what led to his decision. Nor was it only based on a recent hip replacement surgery or his battle with Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a disorder that can lead to easy or excessive bruising and bleeding.
“Everybody gets this stuff, I'm not special,” West said. “We all have our crosses to bear and our bears to cross with our thorns in the side.”
His Santa career began at a Christmas party with his grandson’s family. They asked who wanted to be Santa, offering a t-shirt suit and beard. Seeing no one jump up, West volunteered.
He enjoyed the experience and began renting a suit for the weekend in Wichita — paid for by Bridges, Inc., which had him at their employee banquet on Saturday nights.
“We would try and get in as many hospital visits, stopping in to say hi and stuff, and pretty soon it started growing,” West said.
Last year West made 43 different visits as Santa — 41 of them in just 23 days leading up to Christmas.
“I give the kids a traditional memory, what they do with that is beyond me,” West said.
It is the kids he will miss the most, he said.
“It's going to be a … I have not made it through my first Christmas yet without it,” West said.
Sometimes his wife, Deb, would join in as Mrs. Claus.
During the years his beard, naturally grown, has faded from the black hair he had to color to white. He will keep the beard, though it will be trimmed a little closer to his chin.
“God gave me a heck of a nice facial hair,” West said. “That's what I tell people. I am not the one who made this. I'm not the one that invented the humor, or made the personality or the skinny body. God did all that. He gave me this. I used it to talk to his children. Now he wants me do something different, I'm just not sure what that is. He has never left me just hanging out.”
Some kids really believe West is Santa year round, even in the summer, when he sports a shorter beard and Hawaiian shirt.
“I got into it, and you really live it,” West said. “ … You have to be excited, the kids have to know you are excited and you have to be excited for them.”
He often wishes he would have written down the things kids ask for, believing it would be a great book.
“This has been a ride, a fun, fun ride. All the things I have heard, heard from the kids. The things they wanted. A four-year old girl who wanted a golf course, an eight year old a year's supply of tacos,” West said. “I wish I would have kept a diary of all of that.”
He never charged for his services, though some wanted to pay to have Santa come visit. When they did, he accepted donations, giving it all to Operation Christmas Child with Samaritan’s Purse. He became involved when he saw the Hillcrest Community Church organizing shoe boxes to send to children around the world.
Over the past few years, he has donated upwards of $1,400 annually to Samaritan's Purse to help ship shoe boxes full of Christmas gifts to children in impoverished parts of the world.
“I have a lady that kept me accountable,” West said. “... I don't make the boxes, but I give them the money. That is what this is all about. It is about the kids, and Jesus loving kids.”