The talent of John Klemeyer
He goes by many names: Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and Santa Claus, to name just a few. Santa was derived from British, Dutch, and Greek traditions, but didn’t catch on in the U.S. until the early part of the 19th Century when the poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” was published.
Santa has had many helpers in our area and has been assisted by several well-known men. When I asked people whom they remembered as stepping in to fill those shiny black boots during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, these are the names that immediately came to mind.
Bud Bono was remembered as the Santa for IGA.
Bob Duckworth listened to children’s lists on WAOV Radio.
John Klemeyer was never Santa for a store, but he went where requested.
John Spade sat in Santa’s chair at Gimble Bond Department Store.
Clarence Stout was remembered for his dramatic reading each year of A Christmas Carol, and listening to children’s lists at Security Bank.
Al Thorne was the Santa at Montgomery Ward.
But of all these helpers, one man was remembered for continually keeping the spirit of Christmas alive for local children for 35 years.
John Klemeyer was a Vincennes businessman who caught the “Santa bug” after his son, John Jr. “Jack” was born.
According to his wife, Pat Klemeyer, “I think having his own child made him want to share that magic with other children. John went to New York to Santa School to train to be a Santa in 1961. He bought his suit there, and every year he’d send it back to be cleaned and repaired. It saw a lot of wear and tear during the holiday season.”
Klemeyer was a traveling Santa; he went wherever he was asked to appear.
“John would be Santa for anyone who asked,” Pat remembered. “He didn’t take money for it, he did it because he loved being Santa. He would go to all the schools and play Santa for them at Christmastime. He was also the Santa at Head Start, the nursing homes and at the Rotary party every year for the orphanage.”
And Klemeyer took his role seriously.
“Someone would call and say, ‘My child doesn’t believe in Santa anymore,’ ‘ Pat said. “And John would say ‘I’ll take care of that.’ Then he would call out that child’s name in the Christmas parade and wave at them, or tap on their house window to show that he was watching to see if they were being good, ” Pat smiled at the memory. “That always made them believe.”
“The kids were in awe of him. Sometimes children would ask for so much and he knew that the family couldn’t do that, so he’d say ‘Santa can’t bring you everything on your list, but he knows what you want,’ and then they’d always sing a song together.”
What motivated Klemeyer? “Well, he did love the cookies!” Pat laughed, “And he knew who baked the best. But really, he did it to help make children’s holidays magical, and because he just loved being Santa. When he put that suit on, he became Santa Claus. He really believed it, and so did everyone else.”
Was there ever a time that this Santa’s true identity was almost discovered? “He worried about that,” Pat said. “John never wanted his name mentioned when he was Santa. He didn’t want a child to see that he was ‘pretending’ to be Santa. He wanted them to believe for as long as they could.”
“Of course, every year, I took our son Jack to the parade, but never to see Santa because John was afraid he’d recognize him. Then one year when Jack was 4 or 5 years old, he decided he had to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what he wanted, so John wore white gloves so Jack wouldn’t recognize his father’s hands. He always changed his voice so no one would know it was him, but the hands could have given him away to his son.”
“There were several families that had him come to their homes every year, even after the children didn’t believe anymore because John could almost convince you “
But there comes a time when all of Santa’s helpers must hang up that big red suit. Pat recalled when John had to stop.
“Eventually, he had to give it up due to his health; he didn’t want the kids to see that he could no longer walk. One of the last times he was Santa for the Vincennes University Christmas card in the mid-90s.”
“So many people wanted his suit after he was gone – it had that ‘Santa magic’,” Pat said. “But I wouldn’t loan it out. It was just quietly retired, and is still very much loved and cared for.”
“He spent over three decades as Santa. It was a part of him – of who he was.” Pat paused and smiled, “And John was such a good Santa.”
By Joy Neighbors