Keeping up with Don Waltman

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Don Waltman doesn’t sit too still. At 80, he works three jobs — a part-time Burpee seed merchandiser, a staff person in the University of Missouri Athletics Department and Santa Claus — and bikes three to five days a week. Indeed, since the day he retired from JC Penney’s 23 years ago, he has done just about everything but slow down.

An Iowa native, Waltman and his wife, Mary, moved to Columbia because they wanted to move “south” in retirement. Having lived in a college town before, they loved the feel of that kind of community and decided to settle in the home of their son’s alma mater, the University of Missouri.

Waltman grew up in Muscatine, Iowa, on the river. A graduate of the University of Iowa, he has black and gold in his veins. So, when he applied for a job in the University of Missouri Athletics Department to get out of the house, shortly after they moved here, it felt somewhat natural to him. His fortune came at the urging of then-MU Assistant Athletic Director Joe Castiglione. They met at a Rotary Club of Columbia Northwest meeting, and Castiglione suggested he apply.

Waltman’s first event as an usher was an MU men’s basketball game against Oklahoma. “Boy, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he says with a grin.

A quick study and with a can-do attitude, Waltman found himself being given more responsibility. His managerial experience was useful and he was eventually put in charge of event staff scheduling. As events grew and new venues were added, and before computers were utilized as they are today, the job of fitting more than 300 events, at one point, and attending those events into his 40-hour work week became unruly and he decided to step down.

But stepping down didn’t mean stepping out. Instead, he is still the go-to guy when the department has a need. If someone gets sick or can’t come in, he gets a call. He has performed almost every job in the athletic department, from telephone receptionist to data entry to event staff.

“Whatever they want me to do, I’m glad to do,” he says, and that often includes playing the role of Santa for the holiday party.

 

Becoming Santa

In 1992, Waltman got his start at being Santa when he answered a want ad in the newspaper. The Columbia Mall was in need of someone to fill the role; they actually needed five someones to fill a seven-day schedule from open until close. The five Santas split the shifts and shared the suits and beards.

“That’s where I started being Santa,” Waltman says. When he first started at the mall, they were using Polaroid cameras.

Over the years, he learned a thing or two about Santa. Indeed, an experienced Santa is priceless. An experienced Santa knows how to sit an infant down so he’s not screaming in terror at the bearded man holding him. He knows how to coax the 8-year-old girl on the verge of unbelief into sitting on his lap, smiling wide and sharing her Christmas wish list with him. This experienced Santa even once helped a young man propose to his girlfriend. The man left the ring with Waltman and brought his girlfriend back that evening. As local media waited in the wings to capture the moment for the newscast, Santa gave her the ring. She said, “Yes.”

One November, however, Waltman didn’t get a call to come in for the Santa meeting. An outside firm had been hired, but that didn’t end his Santa engagements. Being Santa had become part of his life not just a job at the mall.

Today, he no longer shares his suits. In fact, he has two of his own: a nice one, custom-made by a company in Des Moines, Iowa, and a lesser suit for stickier situations like inclement weather. Velvety red with puffy white trim, they are both cut for a man with a wider girth than his.

“I’m not that heavy, so I have to have padding,” he says of his prosthetic “belly.” “I always tell [the kids] I never get enough chocolate chip cookies.”

He doesn’t have a real beard, either. “I know it’s fake and it looks fake,” he says, “but it’s just part of the costume.” It doesn’t seem to matter to the kids.

This year, he has already appeared as Santa at the Voluntary Action Center’s (VAC) “Christmas in July” event held at the Missouri United Methodist Church in downtown Columbia. It’s a gig he has had for several years.

“He is all about being Santa,” says VAC Director Nick Foster of Waltman. “He is the man. He really seeks to embody that spirit.”

The “Christmas in July” event is important to Waltman. A fundraiser as well as a service, it raises awareness of needs in the community throughout the year, not just at Christmas. His role is handing out gifts to the children who attend, but “kids” from the very young to the young at heart want to see Santa there.

Waltman doesn’t advertise, nor does he typically accept payment. Instead, he asks that a donation be made to charity, an idea he got from another Santa early in his Chris Kringle career. He doesn’t do it for the money, but rather for “the satisfaction you can bring to kids,” he says.

In addition to the VAC and MU Athletics events, Waltman has been Santa in the Columbia Christmas parade. He’s made appearances at preschools, elementary schools and high schools; area food banks; local business; and living rooms. In all of these places, most of the requests are similar: Girls want Barbies or dolls, and boys like action figures and Legos, he says. Though he does his best to stay on top of trends, a couple of years ago the Wii caught him off-guard.

There is the occasional request for world peace, and more often than he’d like, he hears heartbreaking requests for things like keeping a parent out of jail or getting parents back together. That’s when he knows there is something missing at home, and he tries to be patient and give them as much time as he can.

“I take Santa pretty seriously,” he admits. Sometimes, it’s more than putting on a red suit; it’s the “idea” of Santa.

“With some of the ‘nuttiness’ that is going on in the country, there’s an awful lot of good that’s going on, too,” Waltman says. Organizations like Salvation Army, where he sits on the advisory board, and its Harbor House are stops on his holiday schedule, not just as Santa but often as a bell ringer. It’s been his experience during the holidays that bell ringing opens people’s hearts and generosity.

 

Beyond Santa

Sitting in his kitchen in late October, Waltman pulls out a snapshot of him in his Santa suit during a dress rehearsal shortly before the “Christmas in July” event last summer. He was sitting on a recumbent bicycle in the grass on his lawn. It is a perfect combination, representing who he is.

Waltman began cycling as a cheap mode of transportation when his family was young, “dirt poor and had only one car.” It made sense. He could ride the two or three miles across town (at that time Champagne-Urbana, Ill.) and park his bike right outside the back door of the JC Penney’s store much quicker that he could drive, find a place to park and walk the typical four or five blocks to the store.

When he got to the store that first day, his legs were like rubber, he says. He could hardly walk. Four decades later, he doesn’t mind the trip to the MU campus he makes three to five times a week.

“That seven or eight miles from Mizzou is very relaxing,” Waltman says. “I can just unwind from whatever I’ve done down there during the day or evening.”

A cyclist for some 40 years, Waltman has ridden the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) for 29 of the last 30, missing only the year he and Mary moved to Columbia. The race is in July, and VAC organizers have “come to understand if you want Santa to come in July,” Waltman says with a laugh, “you have to schedule [Christmas in July] when he’s not biking RAGBRAI.”

This year, RAGBRAI was special because he had just celebrated a milestone birthday.

One of his goals was to ride his age in a day, a common aspiration for older athletes, he says. “I don’t do centuries (100 miles) anymore, but I thought I could do 80 miles. The first day was very hilly, and I had 83 miles. Two other days were right at 80 during the week. It was a good week.”

So good in fact, that with his focus on the ride, he completely missed all the signs that an 80th surprise birthday party awaited him at the end. More than 70 family members from across the country met in Iowa to celebrate. He didn’t have a clue, Mary says, and it’s not easy to surprise Santa.

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