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December 24, 2012

Santa walks among us

MEADVILLE — Click image for slideshow

 My good buddy, Tribune photographer Rich Sayer. and I share a reverence for Ray Eldridge. It was my privilege to feature Ray back in 2006, in just my 14th installment of the Profile. In 2009, after Ray’s passing at age 85, Rich put together a glowing memorial photographic slideshow “A True Saint,” dedicated to Ray’s life, loves and famous beard. Instructions are provided below for your viewing pleasure and “mainline injection” of Christmas Spirit.

It was that wonderful beard that initially led Ray’s lovely wife to implore him to become Santa Claus. As it grew in, fuller and whiter each year, Santa emerged; and Ray came to embrace the responsibilities of the role.  The origin of Meadville’s “Light-Up Night” was ignited by a bold decision of a Tribune publisher for a predominantly black and white industry to “go color” for a front-page image of our Santa Claus!

But Ray did it his way. Never for hire, he seemed to magically appear where Santa was most wanted or needed; the gentle jingle of his Christmas bells, and that hearty “Wha-ha-ho-ho-ho,” warming any room. He most loved walking the streets and poking in and out of the downtown Meadville shops, spreading joy and the Christmas message to those who usually needed it most. And no one could hold back a smile watching him work his magic.  We, like countless area families, made it tradition to take our children for a visit with Santa each year. Always patient, warm and embracing; often the adults fell deeper into the spell, desperate to pass on their “belief” in old St. Nick to the little ones.

Ray credited his “essence” to the freedom of independence he was given as a child. And as a member of the now-venerated Greatest Generation, the Navy man and combat veteran fought to preserve that freedom for the rest of us. No matter your religious beliefs or lack-there-of, Ray’s “calling” was unabashedly spirit-filled, as each candy-cane passed out was accompanied by a holographic picture of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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