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updated: 5/23/2012 8:11 PM

Naperville Central's Real Bearded Santa Clause set to retire

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  • Naperville Central athletic trainer Bill Hughes will retire at the end of this school year.

      Naperville Central athletic trainer Bill Hughes will retire at the end of this school year.
    Photo courtesy of Bill Hughes

 
 

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. For years now, from August to June he's been tooling around Naperville Central in his sleigh. It's really more of a bulked-up golf cart.

Santa tends to children -- rehabbing blown-out knees, resetting dislocated fingers, calming bell-rung kids who just lost their two front teeth.

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After 28 years this jolly man with the white beard, an actual holiday Santa -- the fascinating individual who is Bill Hughes -- will retire from his primary occupation, that of physical education teacher and head athletic trainer at Naperville Central.

A man who in his youth taped the ankles of Doug Collins and worked the sideline for the Detroit Lions, went on to care for Redhawks basketball superstar Candace Parker and twice saved athletes with ruptured spleens will shelve his 60-hour workweek and ride his other sleighs -- a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and a true golf cart -- maybe get a passport, take it down a notch.

"I've been giving to everybody else for so many years that it's time to spend some time with myself and my family," he said.

A bona fide member of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas with the black boots, belt and bachelor's degree in Santa Clausology to back it up, Hughes' own health issues hastened his decision.

Seeing the doctor last summer to treat a sinus infection, the visit took a serious turn. It was discovered Hughes' heart had a bicuspid valve disorder that caused atrial fibrillation, or fluttering. No wonder he often felt fatigued. Researching the condition he learned of the correlation between "a-fib" and stroke, which caused the death of both his father and grandfather.

"That made me think, there's no guarantees," said Hughes, 60, of Warrenville, whose condition has since stabilized under medication. "I want to enjoy a life on my own."

Of course, it's not just his own time. His elementary schoolteacher wife of 40 years, Mary, goes by the handle, "Merg." She is a seven-year survivor of a bone-marrow transplant to combat Hodgkin's lymphoma.

They met on a blind date as students at Illinois State back in the early 1970s and have two grown children: Matt, a camera and lighting technician in Chicago; and Erin, a family social worker in North Carolina with two kids of her own.

"When football gets ready to start in August I hope to be able to be in a car driving to North Carolina to visit my granddaughters, not worrying about kids dropping from heat stroke," Hughes said.

That sounds a mite harsh, but his sentiment can best be judged by the 2,000 children Hughes plops on his knee as Santa Claus every December; those he entertains on Polar Express train rides for four different park districts; the kids he awes each year at the Christmas Eve Children's Mass at St. Irene's Catholic Church in Warrenville.

"Every once in awhile they tug on my beard and it doesn't move, and their eyes get huge," said Hughes, a professional Santa for 20 years.

His brother, Jim, also is a Real Bearded Santa, as is his brother-in-law, Ken Prystup. Merg has made Hughes seven Santa suits -- he now carries an oil cloth to save his suit from kiddie accidents, and a collapsible stool to save his back. He trims his white beard once, on Dec. 26, and not again for a year to cultivate the minimum 5-inch length specified by the Amalgamated Order.

He can say "Merry Christmas" in any language you'd like.

"I love kids," he said. "I wouldn't be Santa if I didn't love kids."

For 38 years Hughes has proved his love of athletes as well, starting out of college as head athletic trainer at Flushing (Mich.) High School.

Hughes' extensive resume details his terms as president of both the Illinois and Great Lakes athletic trainers associations, his seven educational and health care certifications, numerous articles he's had published and special events he's worked, including Olympic Trials in swimming in 1996 and 2000.

"This is a great job," he said. "First of all, the energy you can draw off the kids is just amazing. And it's so gratifying to work with appreciative kids that get injured, and I can take them through the whole process and get them back on the field."

When Hughes took his certification examination in 1974, he was the 1,200th athletic trainer in the country, he said, and nine were female. He said now half of the 38,000 trainers are female.

"The change has been remarkable," said Hughes, who a week ago Wednesday became Naperville Central's first physical education instructor asked to deliver the Commemorative address at graduation.

Hughes' dream was to work in a high school environment. He lived that dream in "a great, great career."

Time to live another dream. Still, Santa vows to come around more than once a year.

"I'm not going to give up this place," Hughes said. "It's been too big a part of my life, and it's great free entertainment. High school athletics is a blast. It's kids playing games that they love because they love the game."

Also at Naperville Central ...

Hughes' fellow Redhawks retiree, athletic director Marty Bee, will be the man of the hour at a retirement party in his honor from 3-6 p.m. Thursday in the school Cafe Commons. All are welcome.

Score

The Illinois High School Lacrosse Association has named 11 players as 2012 High School All-Americas. They include Wheaton Warrenville South midfielder Tyler Cook and, for a second straight year, Metea Valley attack Zach Wood.

A 6-foot-4, 225-pound Virginia recruit, Wood is among 88 senior boys and girls lacrosse players nationwide selected to play in the Under Armor All-America Lacrosse Classic on June 30 at Towson University in Maryland, according to IHSLA.

doberhelman@dailyherald.com

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