MENOMONEE FALLS — It has taken Bob Howe many years to develop one of the finest “Ho! Ho! Ho’s”! in the business.
It’s just about perfect — rumbling up from his belly and exploding into the air. Children erupt in smiles and hugs. Passing motorists toot their horns and wave with excitement.
When you’ve been playing Santa Claus – strike that: when you’ve been Santa Claus for two decades of Decembers, such are the rewards.
Bob has portrayed Santa for the Knights of Columbus for more than 20 years, and 12 years ago, he commented to his wife, Gloria Jean, that because she is married to Santa Claus, she is Mrs. Claus.
“A light bulb went on in our heads and we rented a Mrs. Claus outfit,” said Gloria Jean, who has been married to Bob for 13 years. “We had so much fun; the next year we bought Mrs. Claus her outfit and have been doing it together ever since.”
By day, Gloria Jean is a receptionist at FIS Global in Brown Deer, while Bob is the program director of Hartfel House. The Hartfel House is in the former convent for their parish, Good Shepherd Catholic Church, where eight cognitively disabled men, ranging in age from 37 to 63, live. Hartfel House is a community-based residential facility, or CBRF and licensed by the State of Wisconsin. It is the largest CBRF in Waukesha County.
“Bob is the live-in staff and basically there 24/7,” said Gloria Jean. “I am a volunteer there and we live in a small three room apartment attached to the Hartfel House. Bob is basically responsible for the day-to-day care of the clients. He gets them up in the morning, helps them with showering, shaving and getting breakfast. He is also the main bus driver, seeing they get to work, get home and get to the many activities they participate in. He generally cooks supper and makes sure everyone gets to bed.”
In the evenings and on weekends, Gloria Jean and Bob become Santa and Mrs. Claus. They do most of their appearances during the first two weeks of December and both of their bosses are understanding of their ministry.
When they are not checking their naughty and nice list, Santa and Mrs. Claus make appearances at schools, libraries, nursing homes, the Mitchell Park Domes, grocery stores, Knights of Columbus events and their parish day care.
“The first two weeks of December, we do three or four appearances a week, but years ago, when we were younger, we did over 20 appearances a year, but had to slow down as the knees are not what they used to be,” said Bob. “We have no more appearances this year unless an emergency comes up.”
With more than 20 years of sitting on parade floats in all kinds of weather, and having children climb on his lap, Bob utilizes only one Santa suit to get the job done.
“Years back, I had to go to the Knights of Columbus and tell them I quit because the outfit was so shabby, so faded and so drab, that I was ashamed to wear it,” he explained. “They said, ‘No problem,’ and gave me a blank check and said to get what I needed. I went out and bought the best Santa suit I could find. It lasted many years, but I am now thinking about getting a new one. Can’t have a shabby Santa out there.”
When they make their appearances, most of the visits are the traditional, sit down type where the children come up and talk. The big gift requests this year are Legos, Hatchable Eggs and anything Paw Patrol.
“Some of the children were amazing and said, ‘Santa, you pick something for me,’” said Gloria Jean. “Sometimes we get scolded because we are not moving fast enough, but we want to have enough time to really talk to the children.”
Appearing at the Butler parade is a bit different as Santa and Mrs. Claus sit on a wagon and wave to the crowds as they pass by.
“But at the Butler library, the children bring mats or rugs to sit on. The library staff reads stories and Santa and Mrs. Claus just talk to the kids as there is no line,” Gloria Jean explained. “The nursing home is a little more in depth as we sing Christmas carols with the Knights and we have a chance to incorporate the true meaning of Christmas with the birth of Our Lord Jesus.”
Though Bob is 71 and Gloria Jean is 67, neither have plans to retire at the North Pole, but both say they will continue as long as their legs hold out.
“Doing this helps us to increase our faith in the youth of today and realize how many good children are out there,” said Bob. “It helps us to realize no matter how bad things get, the birth of the Baby Jesus brings hope into the world. We feel blessed to have this opportunity to be a part of this message.”
Neither ask for pay for their many appearances, but some group offer the couple a gift for their time, which they accept graciously. Among their favorite gifts are the ones from the children.
“We love it when the children color pictures for us and love seeing them interact with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Santa loves holding the babies,” said Gloria Jean. “We also love visiting the people in the nursing home who cannot come down to the Christmas party and we take a gift to their room. Seeing tears in the eyes of the senior citizens and getting hugs from the children are the best. There is so much love and joy to be had in doing this. It’s kind of a ministry to us.”