By Richard Sayer
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.