Meadville Tribune

December 24, 2012

Santa walks among us


MEADVILLE TRIBUNE

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.

 

Some moments from our visit:

The best part of here: It’s quiet, and the people, so nice.

To improve this world: I encourage everyone to pray, every day.

Book that means the most: The Bible.

Perfect day: Communing with my good friends.

Charity of choice: I try to share with all.

Favorite sound: Birds chirping.

Favorite smell: Flowers.

My motivation: People.

Most proud: Attending mass every day.

Remember me for: Putting the interests of others first.

Something everyone knows:  I “AM” SANTA CLAUS, exclaimed with a wink and hearty, knowing laugh!

 

Like Rich, Ray was a photographer, kindred spirits sharing an eye for capturing life’s magical moments, typically after helping to create them. This line in Sayer’s piece captured me. “Unlike the iconographic character he portrayed, Santa Ray Eldridge was not frozen in time.” Alas, not in body, but surely in spirit, as Ray’s pure “goodness” will carry on as we remember his life, and pass along his story and messages to future generations.

I asked Ray back in 2006 the one question he wanted answered, and from whom. He responded simply: “My wife, tell me about Heaven.” He knows all about it now. So maybe he really was Old St. Nick himself reincarnated, or perhaps it was simply Saint Ray, walking among us, who so believed in Christmas, but more importantly, believed in kindness, generosity, selflessness, fun and humanity; and he carried and lived the spirit of Christmas 365 days each of his 85 years.

 

Sayer’s memorial to Ray, “A True Saint.” can be viewed by clicking the slideshow icon above. Do yourself a favor — spend three minutes with Ray through Rich’s eyes, then pass along the joy.

Merry, Merry to my “loyals.” It is for you that I do.

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Below is a story that appeared in the Meadville Tribune in May 2009 a day after Eldridge's death.

By Richard Sayer



meadville tribune



Walking along Chestnut Street the last couple of Christmas seasons, past the local businesses, I noticed something was missing.



Where was the gentle jingle of ringing bells on a string, accompanying the crunch of snow under approaching footsteps — and that hearty “Wha-ha-ho-ho-ho!”?



Missing was the energetic, some might say youthful, stride of a bearded elderly man in a red suit who answered to the names of Ray, Mr. Eldridge ... and Santa.



But unlike the iconographic character he portrayed around the streets of Meadville, Santa Ray Eldridge was not frozen in time. Ray had become old and was unable to perform his self-made duties as a roving Santa, stopping at downtown businesses to spread holiday cheer, hand out candy canes and often give away photographs of himself with a prayer on the back to young and old alike.



Since 2006, Eldridge hadn’t played Santa so much. And on Thursday, he passed away.



Eldridge was a sonar specialist in the Navy in World War II in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. He had many stories about his days on ship looking for submarines including knowing the difference between the ping sounds made from sonar hitting a whale and a submarine. “We would get yelled at if we blew up a whale,” Eldridge told a reporter in 2006 with a laugh. “We had to be very sure what we reported on to the captain.”



The story he told the most was the one that would have a tremendous effect on his elder years.



On the bridge of the USS Loy, a destroyer patrolling the Atlantic Ocean, Eldridge showed up on the bridge sporting a beard. He knew it was against the rules, but he was mad at his captain. He said the captain would make mention of the beard, but fall short of ordering him to shave. He wouldn’t shave and said several days went by and he knew that the captain was growing more and more upset every time he saw Eldridge with the beard.



“One day, after a while of this, I went up on the bridge and the captain says (Eldridge raises his voice with an authoritative tone), ‘Eldridge, go down and shave off that beard, and THAT’S AN ORDER!’ ”



So he shaved — end of story.



Well, not entirely the end. Before he shaved he had a picture taken.



Years later, his wife, Mary, saw the photo and became very intrigued.



“After seeing that picture, she kept bugging me to grow a beard, because she thought I looked handsome,” Eldridge said. He was working as a bus driver for school children by then and he didn’t want to show up disheveled and agreed to start growing once school was out. “I’ll grow one for the summer, but I’ll shave it off in September.” Mary got her wish.



When September rolled around he told her it was coming off.



“She said, ‘Oh dear, please keep it at least until New Year’s.’ Well, it takes two to make a marriage,” Eldridge said, so he didn’t shave. “The longer I let it grow the whiter it became.”



The whiter it became the more like Santa he looked.



Then it began. He started getting requests to play Santa. Eldridge was reluctant.



“I don’t know how to play Santa,” he’d tell them, “its not my role.”



He finally broke down after many, many requests.



The first time he did it was for preschoolers and he rented a suit that Mary had to wash beforehand because it was so dirty and smelly. Mary then made him his own suit. A few years went by and he would only play Santa for friends.



Martha Miller, who was the head of the Chamber of Commerce at the time, approached Eldridge with an idea. Santa (Eldridge) could go around town to area businesses to cheer up people during the holidays.



He refused.



“Santa is for children,” he told her.



Then Miller played a little dirty pool, she asked him to reconsider in front of his wife. Mary had no part of Eldridge’s argument. She and Miller convinced him to do it. Eldridge said he would but only if he could play Santa for the children in between his stops, if he could become a “roving Santa” walking all over town and playing Santa for everyone he encountered.



Once committed to the role, his mind started churning.



“Let’s get a picture of Santa in the Tribune, on the front page, inviting everyone to town for a hometown Christmas,” he told Miller. It was in the day of black and white photos, but they pitched the idea to the paper in color. The publisher at the time, Bob Smith, hesitated. “He sat back in his chair in the office at the Tribune and began to roll his cigar around his mouth with his fingers, then he leaned forward and said — let’s do it!”



Light-up night was born.



After that night in the mid-1980s Eldridge officially started the holiday season in Meadville by lighting the tree in Diamond Park and leading a parade to a location, sometimes the Downtown Mall, sometimes @ the Bank, where he would greet children who would sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas.



“There were so many wonderful encounters; sometimes the adults loved Santa as much as the kids. It’s a beautiful life!” said Eldridge as recalled his years of being Santa.



That life came to an end yesterday, more than 20 years after he first donned a Santa suit and began the process of growing a beard he didn’t even, like year after year. He grew it, beginning from scratch every May 1 just to play Santa.



“I do not like a beard, it is messy when eating, especially soup,” he said. “But God wanted me to play Santa, so I did!”





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Below is another story published in 2006 while Eldridge was still actively portraying Santa.



Last year The Meadville Tribune published a story and a slideshow on a local man who has been portraying Santa on the Streets of Meadville for more than a generation. We revisit this story this weekend as this man again begins to don his red suit officially Friday evening with the Light - Up Meadville celebration at Diamond Park.







As his fingers glide across the smooth skin on his chin searching for spots he missed with his razor, Meadville’s Ray Eldridge looks into the mirror above his bathroom sink. It’s the end of April and this shave will be his last for eight months. He washes off the remaining suds and looks deep into his face. “That’s it,” he says as his eyes begin to glimmer and a smile forms.



He begins to let his facial hair grow every May and doesn’t shave again until the end of December.



“I do not like a beard,” he admits, but there is no way he would ever not grow one.



The 83-year-old man is Santa Claus. He believes God has groomed him his entire life to play Santa, and Eldridge knows he can’t be Santa without a beard. Even though he finds having a beard a pain — eating is messy, especially soups or foods with sauces — he doesn’t feel he can let God or the people of Meadville down — they expect him to be there. “Santa has so many interesting encounters,” he said. “And he (God) has been working on me my whole life to play Santa. I can’t quit on him now!”



Eldridge’s first beard came when he was a young man in the Navy. He got upset with his captain aboard the USS Loy, a destroyer escort patrolling the Atlantic and then the Pacific oceans in World War II. Eldridge was a sonar specialist working on the bridge.



“I can’t remember what the captain did, but I remember being mad at him for something,” Eldridge admits 60 years later. “I knew beards were illegal in the Navy, so I grew one, not a big one — just a goatee.” The captain took notice, mentioning the beard several times. The captain got more and more aggravated about it, but always stopped short of ordering Eldridge to shave.



“One day, after a while of this, I went up on the bridge and the captain says (Eldridge raises his voice with an authoritative tone), ‘Eldridge, go down and shave off that beard and THAT’S AN ORDER!’ ”



So he shaved — end of story.



Well, not entirely the end. Before he shaved he had a picture taken.



That picture is responsible for Eldridge becoming Santa Claus.



Years later he was going through some of his belongings and found the picture. His wife, Mary, who had never seen the picture or her husband with a beard, was curious and quite taken by the picture. She asked him to grow a beard for her. He refused. He worked for Prudential Insurance and thought a clean-shaven image was better suited for his job.



Eldridge said she kept asking him over and over. After retiring from Prudential he took a job driving the cafeteria van for Crawford Central School District. He told Mary, “School gets out in May. I’ll grow one for the summer, but I’ll shave it off in September.” So Mary got her wish, he grew a beard.



When September came around he told Mary he was shaving it off. “She said, ‘Oh dear, please keep it at least until New Year’s.’ Well, it takes two to make a marriage,” Eldridge said, so he didn’t shave. “The longer I let it grow the whiter it became.”



Then it began. He started getting requests to play Santa.



“I don’t know how to play Santa,” he’d tell them at first, but he finally agreed to try.



The first time he did it was for preschoolers and he rented a suit that Mary had to wash beforehand because it was so dirty and smelly. Mary then made him his own suit. A few years went by and he would only play Santa for friends.



Then Martha Miller, who was the head of the Chamber of Commerce, asked if Eldridge would play Santa and go around town to area businesses to cheer up people during the holidays. He refused.



“Santa is for children,” he told her.



When Miller asked him to reconsider in front of Mary, Mary had no part of his argument. She and Miller convinced him to do it. Eldridge said he would but only if he could play Santa for the children in between his stops, if he could become a “roving Santa” walking all over town and playing Santa for everyone he encountered.



After warming up to the idea of being Santa, Eldridge had an idea. He told Miller, “Let’s get a picture of Santa in the Tribune, on the front page, inviting everyone to town for a hometown Christmas.” It was in the day of black and white and they pitched the idea to the paper in color. The publisher at the time, Bob Smith, hesitated. He told them that printing the picture in color would be expensive and getting it ready would take time, but he agreed to back the plan.



Light-up night was born.



Tonight, Eldridge will don his red and white suit to continue the tradition when he’ll walk into the gazebo in Diamond Park to officially turn on the holiday lights in the city. He’ll then lead a parade down Chestnut Street followed by hundreds of children and adults. Many of the adults will bring their kids because their parents brought them to see Eldridge years ago.



He will then spend the next month being Santa whenever he can.



“It’s a beautiful life!” says Eldridge as recalls his years of being Santa.



It is hard to say who gets more enjoyment from Eldridge’s portrayal of Santa — Eldridge or the people he encounters through the holiday season. But one thing is for sure, his growing a beard that he doesn’t enjoy having for eight months out of every year is truly a sacrifice and his gift to God and the people of Meadville.



To say he isn’t the real Santa ... well, that would be just a lie.







Richard Sayer, award-winning Meadville Tribune photojournalist, also writes occasional feature stories to accompany major photo assignments. He can be reached at photography@meadvilletribune.com