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PUBLISHED: 4:53 PM on Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Meet Juneau's Santa Claus

  Lee Leschper
His "season" is over, and he'll be back next year.

You probably know him as Santa Claus.

But Jack Marshall - Juneau's Santa Claus for more than 20 years - is also the reason, directly or indirectly, you are reading this issue of the Capital City Weekly.

For several years, Jack's been a key part of the team delivering our newspaper throughout Southeast Alaska; for the last year as the leader of our delivery team.

But Jack's real job, his vocation and passion, is Christmas.

With his great white flowing beard, twinkling blue eyes and jolly nature, it's as though he was born to be Santa.

Jack has lived several lives and careers. Born in Lubbock, Texas, he moved to his family's homestead in Oregon as a youngster, where roaming the mountains and rivers forged an undying love of the Pacific Northwest.

Jack, 63, served two tours on Navy air craft carriers as a high explosives expert, in Vietnam, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Laos. He also worked for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services as a technology expert.


Photo by Lee Leschper
  Jack Marshall, known Santa Claus, with his daughter Tawny Marshall.
But it was during prior service with the U.S. Forest Service that he began his "Santa Career" in Ketchikan. In 1978, his church drafted him for Santa duty, which he repeated for the Native Heritage Center.

"The ferry brought a bunch of kids from Matlakatla," Jack said. "There was this one little boy who jumped in my lap. He was very definitive that he wanted to just one thing, a Tonka truck. And then he took his little bag of goodies and started to walk away. Then he stopped, looked back and said, 'Don't forget me this time, Santa!' And then he was gone. Forever."

Jack said that was the beginning of what has become a passion.

"Right then it all clicked," he said.

His voice gets choked with emotion as he remembers that tiny face.

"I've always wondered what happened to him. He'd be at least 35 now, with his own kids. Did he ever get that truck? I still get emotional thinking about him," Jack said, a tremor in his voice.

Jack started a tradition of shaving his beard on Christmas Day, then growing it out for the entire year in anticipation of the next Christmas, after a few years of using imitation beards and padding.

Just before the holiday season, he has his beard bleached snow white. With his custom-made red suit and the persona of St. Nick, the transformation is breath taking.

Jack IS Santa.

When he moved to Juneau in 1984, he expected that the Santa legend would end there.

"But the word had already gotten out and my church asked me to continue here. The word spread fast," he said.

During his Juneau summers in the 1980s, Jack began performing in Janice Holst's Gold Nugget Review, depicting Juneau founder Richard Harris, with Steve Jones playing Joe Juneau. That lead to a recurring role for Jack as Santa in Holst's annual holiday Grumpsicle, the longest-running annual performance in Alaska.

Jack has hundreds of stories about other families, other kids, other Christmas memories.

But it's another from his early days in Ketchikan that strikes home.

"We heard about a family that came in a boat. They had literally nothing. It was winter and they were living on that little boat, with five kids from teenagers to little ones, all in one tiny cabin in the boat on the water," he said.

Jack began collecting donations and food in the forest service office. With contributions and a huge donation from a local department store, he filled two vans with groceries and gifts. A friend helped him carry the huge pile of gifts and food down to the boat cabin door.

"When the lady came out and saw those gifts, she literally wept," he said softly.

"That locked me in!"

Although Jack charges a small fee for his appearances, much of it goes to cover the cost of maintaining his custom suit, and having his beard and hair whitened just for the season.

The remainder he gives away, to those particularly in need.

"I look for families that are really hard up," he said. He's also purchased toys for children's' nurseries at local churches.

Another memorable event began with a missing costume.

"I was doing the Heritage Center in Ketchikan and the kids were already there. I was using the church's Santa suit, but the coat was missing. The pants and all the gear were there, but no coat. The kids were singing, but we didn't know what to do. There was this beautiful beaded blanket on the wall, so we took it off the wall and wrapped me in the blanket. The kids went crazy! So every year after that I wore the blanket."

That year, Jack had a command performance - a special visit to the 102-year-old Alaska Native woman who gathered all her extended family around Jack, to show Santa wearing what turned out to be her blanket.

Jack has a special affinity for those who are not likely to have much Christmas, especially children from less-advantaged families and elderly folks.

His annual visit to Wildflower Court in Juneau is a highlight of his year, to visit and often dance with the senior citizens, taking time to talk and get a photo with each resident.

"I find out some of them keep every one of those pictures, every year with me," Jack says, with a catch in his voice and tear in his eye. "One lady recently died there and they found she had 13 years of photos with me, that she'd saved.

"They are so happy, to get some attention, have somebody just to talk to. It really gets to me."

Children in local hospitals also get a big place in Jack's heart.

"Most of those kids, in the hospital, have pretty well written off Christmas. They're stuck there. So when Santa comes in, it really makes their day. Often their parents have presents there, that I can give them," he said.

How does Santa spend his own holiday?

"The hardest time about Christmas is not being able to spend more time with my own kids, because I'm out being Santa. Often because I'm so busy, I'll get to the end of the holiday and have very few gifts for them!" Jack exclaimed.

But there has been a bonus for them.

"All my kids grew up being elves with me," Jack said, with a twinkle in his eye.

Leschper is general manager of the Capital City Weekly and regional advertising director for Morris Communications newspapers in Alaska. Email him at lee.leschper@juneauempire.com.


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