Story last updated at 12/24/2008 - 10:54 am
JUNEAU - For eleven months of the year, he's Jack Marshall, a retired state employee who oversees distribution of the Capital City Weekly. But come December, Marshall's alter ego kicks into full gear.
"This time of year he just transforms into Santa," said Deb Verrelli, who has been one of Marshall's photographers for 18 years. "He truly is Santa. We don't even call him Jack. Everyone just automatically calls him Santa."
It's easy to see why. Even without the red suit, Marshall, 65, sports a pure white beard and a twinkle in his eye.
This is Marshall's 30th year as Santa in Southeast Alaska, a milestone that Gov. Sarah Palin took note of, sending him a letter this month thanking him for his "tremendous compassion and generosity."
Marshall, now retired from a 40-year career in computing, grew up in Oregon, where he still owns a family timber business (at one point they sold Christmas trees). He first came to Alaska when he was transferred from Utah to Ketchikan with the Forest Service. It didn't take long before someone at his church saw the perfect job for Marshall at Christmas time.
Even though he was only 35 at the time, Marshall already had naturally white hair. He was a shoo-in for Santa.
"I'd never done it before, but it appealed to me," Marshall said. "I'd always liked kids."
The church lent him a suit. For his first three years, he used a fake beard, but that mainstay of most Santas was short-lived for him.
"I never liked the fake beards," Marshall said.
And he's been lucky to not need them. For the past 27 years, he's used his own beard. His hair went white at 23, a rare genetic trait. Still, he visits a hairdresser every year before the season starts to take the gray out and keep yellow from coming in. The result is a pure, natural white.
In his first few years as Santa, several experiences helped solidify the Santa spirit within Marshall.
"The second year, someone came into the Forest Service office and said a family had come in and was (living on a boat) at the public dock," Marshall remembered. "They had no fuel on it, no money ... it was really grim."
The Forest Service set up a box for donations in the front of the office. Since Marshall was Santa, he got associated with the box and ended up being in charge of the project. Food, clothes and monetary donations poured in.
"It boggles the mind how generous these people were," Marshall said. "That spirit just caught up in my heart."
Several Forest Service employees carted everything down to the harbor and stacked gifts eight feet high on the dock where the family's boat was tied up.
"I knocked on the door of the boat and a woman came out," Marshall said. "Everyone shouted, 'Merry Christmas!' - and she cried."
Another crucial event in the development of Santa Claus was a young boy who came to visit him and asked for a Tonka Truck.
"As he left he said, 'Don't forget me this time Santa Claus,'" Marshall recalled. "And then he disappeared into the crowd."
Marshall said he wished he could have found the kid and given him hundreds of Tonka trucks.
Beginning his first year as Santa, Marshall also was invited to the Native Heritage Center, where a boat of Tsimshian kids came over from Metlakatla to see Santa.
One year, the Santa coat hadn't come back from cleaning yet and one of the center's employees suggested he use a Native blanket that was hanging on the wall of the museum.
"The kids just loved it," Marshall said. "It was like a Native Santa Claus. From then on, they wouldn't let me wear anything else. The kids came for that."
Five years passed and the museum told him someone at the Pioneer Home had requested he visit with the blanket. He was hesitant to take the blanket out of the Heritage Center. After all, it was a museum piece. But the center insisted that it was okay. When Marshall arrived at the Pioneer Home, he found he was visiting the 102-year-old owner of the blanket.
"She was dying and it was her last wish (to) sit on Santa's lap and have all her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren be there," Marshall said. "I was really pleased that she had honored me in that way."
After about a decade of being Santa in Ketchikan, Marshall and his family moved to Juneau. And though he may have considered hanging up the red suit, someone found out that he'd been Santa and before he knew it, he was 'Santa-ing" in Juneau at the malls and the ANB Hall.
In 990, the unions started sponsoring Santa visits to the hospital and senior center. Len and Deb Verrelli signed on to be an elf and photographer, and have made the rounds alongside Marshall for the past 18 years.
Every Christmas Eve, the group visits Wildflower Court and Bartlett Regional Hospital, too.
"It's a really emotional thing," Marshall said, "especially the (old) St. Ann's and now Wildflower Court. The people who come there are in their final years and are never going to leave there. Sometimes, I'm the only one that visits them. As much as it's a lot of fun ... there's an emotional attachment to the people you see that marks your life."
Marshall has three daughters and two sons. When his older daughters told his youngest, Tawny, that their father was Santa Claus she was initially very upset.
"But I told her, 'It isn't everyone whose father is Santa Claus,'" Marshall said. "She thought about it and asked, 'Well, can I be your elf?'"
After years of being an elf, Tawney, now 26, is working as a nurse's assistant at Wildflower Court herself.
The spirit of Santa
Maybe you don't need to live in the North Pole and raise reindeer to be a real Santa.
"Santa Claus is a spirit, it's a thing that's in your heart," Marshall said. "It's the spirit of Christmas ... of giving."
The spirit is infectious. Many of his elves have stayed with him until they grow old themselves, said elf Len Verrelli.
"He really cares," Verrelli said. "He's not doing it for money, he's doing it because he wants to do it and the joy it brings. He takes the time to make sure everybody's needs are met. He does it with joy. He really believes he's Santa Claus."
The best part of being Santa is the children, Marshall said, and he takes his role very seriously.
"They have perfect faith, children do, especially from (ages) three to eight," Marshall said. "If adults had that kind of faith, there'd be no (empty) church on Sunday."
And as Santa, Marshall would never do anything to shake that faith.
"I think if you're going to be Santa, you've got to be Santa. You have to be one hundred percent Santa while the kids are there. They can see phoniness when it's thrown at them."
If he knows he can make a difference for the kids who visit him, he does.
"I've had kids get in my lap and want to talk because they have no one to talk to at home," he said. "Sometimes, I knew where they lived and I knew their situations and I made sure that Santa showed up at their door with gifts.
"Sometimes, kids say, 'Is there something you can do to get my mom to come back?' What do you say? You can't give them false hope. All you can do is hug them and say, 'Santa will love you, always, always love you.""
When December ends, Marshall puts away his red suit for eleven months, but his spirit of generosity isn't put on the shelf.
Year round, he keeps 25 dollars in gold dollars in his pockets, and he gives them away when people ask - or he sees they need it.
"I've never turned anyone down on the street who's asked me for money," he said. "You've got to recognize there are people in trouble and (giving) is part of community."