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MOUNT VERNON — Every once in a while when retired police officer Dan Werner dons his Santa Claus suit, children surprise him with true displays of selflessness.
Last year, for instance, the first year he started collecting Santa letters from local post offices in Knox County and answering them, an older boy about age 11 wrote Santa asking him to make his younger brother and sister’s Christmas merrier than his own. They were having a hard year. On another occasion, two years ago at the Polar Express scenic railway in northern Ohio, Werner asked a boy — the sibling of a non-verbal boy with an Autism-related disorder— what he wanted for Christmas.
“He said, ‘I want for my brother to talk,’” Werner remembered. “Those are the ones that tear at your heart.”
Werner, a police officer with Columbus State Community College most recently, and with 25 years total in policing, became Santa about five years ago for one simple reason.
“There’s nothing better than being Santa Claus when you walk in (to an event) and see a child’s face light up. Nothing better,” he said.
And he hasn’t looked back since, with more than two dozen events lined up this holiday season including about eight of them in a village of Orange, near Cleveland. The bulk of his Christmas work runs Nov. 18 through Christmas.
The free letter-answering service from Santa, as it turns out, is the most solitary type of Santa work, which requires him to type away at home in answering children’s queries in a personalized way based on their names and requests. Those letters, about 40 of them last year without any advertising done to alert families to his good works, went quite well. But this Christmas season, Werner hopes even more children will write him — a good way to get children to appreciate the old-fashioned form of “snail mail” writing in the digital age. He has added two new features to his letters for the children who do take the time. One is a waxed seal near the outside of the letters, stamped with either “Merry Christmas” or “Santa” on them. In addition, “to make the letters look real,” he will add a cancellation stamp to each letter with the words “North Pole, Alaska, December 25.”
Most parents take their “Dear Santa” letters in person to their local post office, and Werner asks that they be sure to include a return address so he can write back. The Mount Vernon Post Office actually has a box for drop-off letters to Santa. For other post offices in Knox County, the letters can be placed in the “local mail” box. Letters sent by mail with a stamp can be sent to: Dear Santa, along with the name of their local Post Office, and its zip code.
Werner takes his Santa work seriously. So much so, that his costuming and even his beard might impress the real St. Nick. He belongs to Buckeye Santas of Columbus, which acts as a kind of referral service to help line up Santa “gigs” for those who belong to the organization. On weekends from Nov. 18 on, he is essentially booked although Werner can still take on home visits during weekdays. He is also a member of the prestigious International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which requires one’s beard be maintained year-round. The organization also provides liability insurance for members, with Werner carrying $2 million in insurance and paying $175 per year for it.
Werner’s neat beard and somewhat “new” physique — he dedicated himself to getting in better shape and has lost 55 pounds — reminds one of Santa from the classic 1947 movie, “Miracle on 34th Street.” And best of all is that when children are lucky enough to greet him in person, he has some “magical” gadgets that make it all the merrier. When he makes a “fingerlight” in his glove glow red, it’s because he wants a child “to send a message to Rudolph.” He also wears a Santa Claus watch that has a “naughty and nice gauge,” which can point either way depending on the child he’s with — courtesy of a magnet.
He also has a nice red “SC” (Santa Claus) ring, and a large belt buckle with the word “BELIEVE” on it. The 4-inch-wide belt came from Down Home Leather. The ring and buckle were ordered from a Santa Claus supply store. He also has a walking staff he sometimes takes for support on those longer walks, a sturdy wood piece he found floating on a lake in Canada.
As for Santa outfits, he has a few.
“One of them is a really nice Santa suit given to me by a friend of mine, who took an over-the-road trucking job and couldn’t use it anymore,” Werner said.
Werner does most of his Santa gigs outside of Knox County, although he is always hoping to expand his local holiday opportunities. He will spend a few Sundays upcoming at the Wendy’s on South Main Street. He will also be working with Mount Vernon Police to collect blankets and socks at Walmart for distribution to the needy.