'Three amigos' keep Christmas spirit alive
For more than 20 years, Bob Regal, Erv Walz and Jim Thomas have put the "ho, ho, ho" in the Christmas holidays in the Willow Wood neighborhood in Palatine.
With a nod from St. Nick, who tends to be pretty busy this time of year up at the North Pole, these three jolly gentlemen have donned red suits and helped provide visits from Santa Claus to the children of Willow Wood.
Regal and Walz have been participating in the visits for about 30 years, while Thomas is the relative newcomer, with only 20 years under his belt.
The "three amigos," as they call themselves, talk about the visits with a twinkle in their eyes.
Questions from curious kids keep the trio on their toes: "Where are the reindeer? How long does it take to get here from the North Pole? What do the elves look like?"
Thomas enjoys coming up with clever answers and sharing "secret" tidbits with the children, such as the reindeers' favorite type of carrots (the kind with the green tops still attached).
"It's fun to come up with, like, how do I steer the reindeer?" Thomas said. "I show them, putting my hands on their heads and steer the kids."
One of the toughest questions is "Can I have a puppy for Christmas?" The men tread carefully on that one, taking cues from the parents.
"Sometimes I say 'We're out of puppies, but we have horses,'" Thomas says, laughing, which really scares the parents.
Not everyone is thrilled to meet Santa. Young children, especially, tend to get scared, the trio said.
"I had one this year ... a 6-month-old who started screaming the minute I walked through the door," Walz said.
And besides crying children and questionable gift requests, filling in for Santa is a challenge because the outfit makes it hard to see and wearing it is hot.
"I can honestly say that when I'm in the Santa Claus outfit and I've got the hair, I haven't the foggiest idea where I am," Regal said.
"You don't realize the loss of peripheral vision," Walz added. "You're in your own neighborhood and you don't know what street you're on."
"It's like blinders on," Thomas added.
But any trouble they go to is well worth it, they add. The children they visit touch these men's hearts.
"It's more fun for the Santas than for the kids," Regal said.
Thomas particularly remembers one young girl with Down syndrome whose eyes got as big as saucers when he walked through the door.
Regal is now on visits to a second generation of children.
"I've recently been Santa to children of children I used to visit as Santa," he said.
Carol Dorge and Joan Thomas work behind the scenes, planning routes for the visits, which are sponsored by the Willow Wood Neighborhood Association. Years ago, some neighborhood women sewed suits that are used for the visits each year. This year about 35 homes with 60 children participated in the Santa visits, Dorge said.
"It's such a nice tradition and everybody's appreciated it and that's why they continue because it's such a good feeling," Joan Thomas said.
And if you're thinking you'd like to help out with this fun job, take a number. Barring illness, these three aren't giving up their holiday gig.
"These guys won't give their jobs up," Joan said. "I think it's cute the way they are: 'Don't you dare give my spot away.'"