Santa, also known as John Russell, makes photo appearance at the PetSmart in Largo Dec. 1. Russell also was the featured Santa Claus at Largo’s Holiday Tree Lighting and Stroll later that evening. While Russell’s white beard is real, his right leg is a prosthetic, amputated 17 years ago due to a medical condition.
LARGO – Santa Claus sat in a big red chair set up in a tent amidst the twinkling glow of Largo Central Park lit up for the holidays, and met hundreds of children during his visit to Largo on Dec. 1.
Santa’s long white beard was real, he wore an authentic red wool coat and hat, trimmed in white, and he carried jingle bells. But the vast majority of the children and their parents failed to realize that Santa’s big black boots were special. One was made of carbon fiber, built to help him walk on a leg that will eventually need to be amputated. The other black boot is made of only foam, covering a prosthetic of a leg that already had been amputated below the knee.
John Russell, 63, of Clearwater said that if children ask him about his leg, noticing only if they see him out of his Santa chair, his answer is simple: his leg got sick and the doctors had to cut it off.
“They understand that, simple words,” he said.
But they never notice as they sit on his lap, ask for presents and pose for a picture.
“I’m talking to thousands of people sitting on my lap. Nobody has ever noticed that I wear a prosthetic,” he said.
This season will be Russell’s third to don the red suit, a job that he loves passionately and takes very seriously. His history with a prosthetic goes back 17 years.
When he first began to have problems with numbness and a burning and stinging sensation in his right leg, the self-described farm boy from Pennsylvania tried to work through the pain, continuing in his business repairing recreational vehicles and boats. But the situation went from bad to worse.
“It was bad. It hurt like hell,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy to take pain pills or painkillers. I tried to stay away from them. Finally, they put me on painkillers. It didn’t help.”
Russell, a diabetic, went to several doctors before one finally diagnosed him with neuropathic anthropathy, a condition often called Charcot foot in which the joint progressively degenerates.
“There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a toothache you can’t get rid of,” he said.
After progressively worse complications, Russell’s leg had to be amputated a few inches below his knee.
“I ended up with a stump that was hard to put a prosthetic on,” he explained.
Even 10 years later, Russell had to have reconstructive surgery to address the poorly adjusted stump. He eventually found orthopedic surgeon Dr. Thomas Mixa and the doctors at St. Petersburg Limb and Brace. He credits both for helping him walk again.
But his doctors discourage the strenuous work that used to define his occupation. His other leg still suffers from the same condition. A carbon fiber brace keeps the foot absolutely still, allowing Russell to walk and stalling a more-than-likely second amputation. Without the brace, he said he can walk only about 50 yards without his leg swelling to the point where he must rest for the remainder of the day.
The difficulty for Russell to adjust to a slower lifestyle “was putting a strain on everything,” he said.
“There were points when I thought, ‘Why don’t I just die? It just doesn’t seem to be worth it,’” he remembered.
Amputees are a depressed group, he explained. The majority considers suicide, even long after their amputation surgery.
“It plays games with your mind,” said Russell, who now is called to visit and offer hope to patients facing amputation. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
When Russell and Peggy, his wife of now 40 years, had their first of three grandchildren, he was reminded of his love for children and for Christmas. He started growing out his beard. During a trip to Costco one day, he encountered another man with a white beard, wearing a red shirt and khaki pants. He told the dressed-down Santa of his ambitions.
“He tells me, ‘Oh you’re too big. You can’t do Santa Claus,’” Russell said.
The comment, coming from a great-looking Santa Claus, was discouraging, he said. Aside from his size, he was concerned how disability might affect his ability to play Santa.
“I’ve got one leg in a brace and one leg in a prosthetic,” he remembered thinking, “Just leave it for what it is and watch other people do it.”
Six years later, he was doing just that when he got a second opinion. From his wheelchair, Russell watched children talk with the Santa Claus at Countryside Mall while he waited for his wife to finish shopping. As they left, right as the mall was closing, Russell felt a tap on his shoulder.
“What were you doing in my area? You know better,” the mall Santa Claus asked him. “You’re a Santa Claus, right?”
Russell assured the man he was not.
“You ought to be,” he responded.
Russell later had dinner with the man who was named Wayne Barnett and decided to pursue his second career after all.
“Being disabled, it’s something I can do that my doctor will allow me to do,” he said.
He took classes, joined the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas and the Florida-based Palm Tree Santas and earned a degree in International University of Santa Claus.
“It sounds cute and funny, but it’s very important. There’s a lot to know about being Santa Claus,” he said. “I think it takes more than telling people you’re Santa.”
He learned how to present himself and pay attention to the volume and tempo of his voice as well as the importance of white gloves. There are laws that require Santas to have extensive background checks and carry insurance.
But mostly, Russell learned how to embody a symbol of Christmas and how to relate to kids. He uses lights and jingle bells to distract children from their fear of a stranger in an imposing costume so that their parents can snap the picture they want for Christmas cards.
“I love the family visits and home visits, where a lot of Santas don’t,” he said.
In fact, he thinks the Santa experience at a mall is a traumatizing event for a young child.
“I like the child to want to take a picture. I don’t want them crying,” he said. “If you’ve got to have a picture with Santa, find some place where you can go where he’s got time to talk to them.”
Some of the tactics are his own. Children these days often ask for expensive electronics or phones and Russell knows that not all parents can afford those things. So he uses diversionary methods.
“Santa’s elves build toys. They don’t build electronics. Those are built by those electronic companies,” he will explain, advising children to ask for parental approval. “We’ll deliver it, but Mom and Dad have to OK it.”
Russell credits his frequent referrals and positive feedback partly to his enthusiasm stemming from his appreciation for work that doesn’t conflict with his disability.
“I’ve got 54 jobs to do in December already and it isn’t December yet,” he said during an interview on Nov. 30. “Apparently I’m a pretty good looking Santa. I get a lot of compliments.”
Russell said he believed in Santa when he was a child.
“I’m just trying to look like what I would think Santa would look like,” he said. “There was a time when Santa Claus was magical and majestic to me. And then there was a time when Santa Claus was great to have around, He made part of that season better, for me as a person.”
Russell is already on his second Santa suit, after wearing out the first one. The new suit is a better quality, made of wool and designed in the classic Miracle of 34th Street look.
Russell made his Santa belt himself, buying the leather and picking up a few leatherworking skills. The buckle is fashioned out of a brass plate he took off his front door and a sparkling sleigh he extracted from a Christmas trinket he found at a hardware store.
The boots, of course, are specially designed, one an orthopedic brace designed for people with Charcot foot.
“The boot looks like a Santa boot anyhow,” Russell said.
Both the brace and the second foam boot are decorated with a shiny buckle and jingle bells.
Vital to Santa’s look is his beard, and Russell has high standards of care for his, which is currently about 8 inches long. He keeps it trimmed and neat and always rolls it under before going out.
When it’s not Christmas season, Russell stays in red and khaki. Even when he’s not in full costume, his beard gives away his seasonal occupation, even in the summer.
“If you were to walk through the store with me, anywhere, I get stopped. I get stopped dozens of times, if not more,” he said. “You got to do it 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s important that you do.”
Sometimes request for photos and questions from enthusiasts delays Russell’s attempt to even walk into a store. But he doesn’t mind.
“You have to be congenial, because that’s what you do. You can’t be rude with them. I won’t be rude with them,” he said.
Russell would like to see his part-time job carry him through more of the year so that he can meet his goal of no longer needing disability payments. Peggy Russell, who said she enjoys accompanying her husband as Santa but looks too young to be Mrs. Claus, has her own ambitions for her husband.
“My wife’s dream is to see Santa in the Macy’s (Thanksgiving) Day parade,” Russell said.
Russell said he often marvels how fortunate he is.
“I enjoy the heck out of what I do, I really do,” he said. “I thank God I can stay healthy enough to do it.”