story by mary ellen thompson photography by john wollwerth
No matter how old you are, what is Christmas without Santa Claus? Those who believe in him all have memories – of making your wish list, writing him letters, sitting on his lap, having your photo taken, leaving milk and cookies out, for him.
Jack Gannon has been Beaufort’s very own Santa Claus for nearly a quarter of a century. With his ebullient personality, and true love of the character, Jack donned his costume, gathered his elves and Mrs. Claus, and embodied one of the most iconic people who never actually lived.
Jack regales us with his story, “It all began in the most undramatic of ways, I answered an ad in the paper. Main Street Beaufort was looking for a new Santa Claus. It was 1993 and I was working at the Beaufort Gazette and thought a little extra money for Christmas would come in handy. So I turned in the application and a few months later they notified me that I had the job. I was Santa for Night on the Town, the Christmas Tree Lighting, the Christmas Parade, and on the other weekends I walked around town and talked to people. I had been in theater so it was easy to become a character. I became St. Nick, because the story of Santa Claus is derived from the Christian bishop Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children and sailors, who helped those in need and became legendary for his gift giving.”
After that first Christmas season was over, Jack returned his costume to Main Street Beaufort. The following fall, the director called and again asked Jack to be Santa. “1994 had a pivotal moment for me. I was walking down Bay Street in my costume when an elderly lady approached me and asked my name. It was the first time someone had asked me the name of the person under the suit and I wanted to stay in character, so I said ‘Nick’. She told me that her husband had just died and now she didn’t know what to do for Christmas. I told her to contact her children and tell them how she felt, that everything would work out. It was the first time an adult had approached me as Santa. The next year she found me on Bay Street and told me that as a result of my advice her children had all gotten together with her; she thanked me. That was when I realized that there’s more to being Santa than talking to children about what they want for Christmas.”
Also in 1994, Jack had an experience that led him to expand Santa’s coterie with his first elf. Walking down Bay Street, he leaned over to talk to children when two teenage boys ran past him and pulled his beard (which was attached around his head by an elastic band) down off his face. The children were shocked to see that Santa wasn’t really Santa. After that, Jack thought Santa needed a body guard so he added an elf whose job it was to keep an eye out for Santa and make sure all the children were seen because with the costume, the hat, hair and beard, it was sometimes difficult for Santa to see in all directions. The original beard was attached to the moustache, so you couldn’t see his mouth move when he laughed or talked. In the years to come, Jack acquired several Santa outfits and began glueing the beard and moustache directly to his face.
Jack reminisces, “I remember the first year, we were having the photos with Santa taken in Fordham’s Market. A couple in their early nineties walked in to get their photo taken. She was a southern belle, charming and gracious and beautifully dressed; he looked like an old grouch. He picked up a Rudolph doll from the set, sat down beside me and, with a straight face, said to the photographer, ‘Tell me when I’m happy.’ They were there because they wanted their grandchildren to know that they still believed in Santa Claus.”
Jack’s purview expanded when he was asked to be Santa on Fripp Island; he added another elf, got married in 1996 and then had a Mrs. in the Claus family. He found that worked well on many levels, one of which was that some of his young visitors preferred having their photo taken with an elf or Mrs. Claus. Jack officially retired as Santa at the end of the 2015 season but will be Santa one more time, signing his book’s cover as “Santa” at Frampton Plantation in Yemassee on December 10 from 10 – 2 for Toys for Tots. “I was a physically active Santa, I would get on the floor with kids and pets for photos but after twenty three years I found I could no longer meet the physical demands I had set for myself.”
“The main job of Santa is to always maintain the reality of the illusion. I always had a good time, no matter what. I did whatever it took to get that photo, even with the children who screamed and carried on; one year there was a photo in the newspaper of a little boy standing next in line with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face, the caption read ‘No, no, no, to ho, ho, ho!’ There were children in the military who would ask me to let their mommies or daddies come home safely, or to fly over them in foreign countries to make sure they were safe, instead of wanting a present for themselves.”
Perhaps the most poignant Santa memory that Jack holds is the time his father got to see him be Santa. When Jack graduated from Winthrop University in 1983, his mother had recently had a stroke, so Jack came home to Beaufort to help his dad take care of her. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been here to be Santa. Dad spent all his time at home with her, so after she passed on he was able to come to town and get his first, and only, photo taken with Santa.
“Santa is here to remind us what Christmas is all about. I always say ‘Merry Christmas’ not ‘happy holidays’; you just can’t take the Christ out of Christmas. When people tell me they celebrate and open their gifts on Christmas Eve, I tell them to save one gift to open Christmas day because we all get one perfect gift on Christmas day.”
Jack tells a charming story about how he met, and subsequently proposed to, Mrs. Claus, aka Mendy. They were both auditioning for roles in “M*A*S*H” at Beaufort Little Theater and met on stage in their respective roles, he as Trapper John and she as Nurse Bridget. One day when Mendy was coming home from teaching fifth grade, she sat with her mother and grandmother on the porch when they noticed a blue light flashing on a Sheriff’s deputy car accompanying Jack’s car down the street. Jack’s car had affixed to it a banner that read, “Mendy, will you marry me?” He smiles at the memory and explains, “I had told her that when I proposed I would not say a word. She couldn’t figure out how that was going to happen.”
To ease the transition away from being Santa, Jack wrote “I Walked in Santa’s Boots” which was released this November. A compilation in scrapbook format with lots of photos and letters to Santa and other fun bits of memorabilia; Jack says it is his thank you to the community. He describes it as “a historical autobiography of a fictional character by a real person.”
But this isn’t the first book Jack has authored. As a matter of fact, he and his writing partner, Cyndi Williams Barnier, have co-authored several books, with a few more to be released soon. When Jack and Cyndi were best friends at Beaufort High, they thought they would write the next great American novel together after they graduated from college. Their plans got twisted by fate and they lost track of each other for thirty-two years until they found each other on Facebook. They got together for dinner with their respective spouses, found they were each retired, and finally started writing together. The same characters they had envisioned back in high school came to life. “Murder in Two’s and Three’s” debuted in 2011 and is the first of the action, adventure, murder and suspense “Task Force Series” novels. “Dawn of the Living Ghost,” the first of “The InSpectre Series” which are stories of fantasy, paranormal and supernatural, was published in 2015.
“Cyndi and I weren’t meant to write after high school, it wasn’t our time yet even though we were often just a few feet apart. It took thirty-two years for us to come back together as writers. Was that coincidence, providence, destiny? Yes. And the timing coincided just as our other careers ended.” “Walking in Santa’s Boots” is their eighth collaboration to date.