Though he drives a truck instead of a sleigh, lives in Juneau rather than the North Pole, and probably won't be sliding down any chimneys early in the morning of Dec. 25, Jack Marshall takes his role as Santa Claus seriously.
With his long, white beard, tall stature and friendly smile, he's convinced many children, and even some adults, that Santa is more than a Christmas legend.
"It doesn't take but once to have a young child put her arms around your neck and say, 'I love you, Santa Claus,' and they mean it," Marshall said. "It makes you realize what a wonderful thing it all is."
Marshall, who retired from state employment in 1998, first donned the red suit in Ketchikan in 1978, when his church asked him to. Though he has to stuff the suit to create Santa's legendary belly, his hair has been naturally white since he was 23, a genetic trait that made him a natural for the job. His popularity grew, and soon he was playing Santa for several groups in Ketchikan and for kids visiting from Metlakatla.
One of those children proved pivotal in Marshall's perception of his role as Santa Claus.
"This one little boy, he got up in my lap and he only wanted one thing - a Tonka truck," Marshall said. "He described it to me in detail and he knew exactly what he wanted and that was that. As he got off my lap, he looked at me and said, 'Don't forget me this time, Santa Claus.' ... I would have given him a whole fleet of trucks, but he disappeared into the crowd.
"It really affected me," Marshall said. "That was it, the turning point as far as I was concerned. I realized that there are so many people with great needs that weren't being met. The more I did it, the more I realized that it was kind of an honor."
When he moved to Juneau in 1984, Marshall continued playing the role of Santa Claus. He now visits several hundred adults and several thousand kids every holiday season, he said. Jobs and volunteer appearances range from the Nugget Mall to Wildflower Court to private Christmas parties in offices and homes.
In addition to being up-to-date on the latest toys, over the years he's become a bit of a child psychology expert.
"The best kids are the 3- to 7-year-olds," Marshall said. "Babies up to 1 year old aren't too bad, but 1- to 3-year-olds are insecure.
"In the 7 to 8 range they're beginning to make that transition," Marshall said, referring to changes in the children's belief in Santa Claus. "The girls seem to take a little bit longer than the boys really. The boys at about 8 years old seem to get a little bit cynical.
"As they move into the teenage area, they sometimes kind of miss it. They know I'm not Santa, but there's something about wanting to remind themselves of those years when they were younger. Then they grow older, have children and they're back again."
Marshall's youngest daughter, Tawney, now 20, was about 11 when her older sister told her Santa Claus wasn't real.
"She came to me upset," Marshall said, "and I said, 'It isn't every kid whose father is Santa Claus.' "
Marshall suggested his daughter play the role of Santa's elf and her eyes brightened up, he said. She acted as an elf until she went to college two years ago.
Kenndra Wheat, a freshman at Juneau-Douglas High School, replaced Tawney this year as one of Marshall's volunteer elves.
Wheat, who grew up in a house across the street from the Marshalls, believed as a child that she was Santa Claus' neighbor. She puts on a red hat and hands out candy canes and some presents for Marshall because she said the children love seeing Santa.
"I love little kids because they're so adorable," Wheat said. "I like to watch their faces, the smiles, they're so cute."
Marshall's wife, Judy, has not assumed the role of Mrs. Claus.
"Because he's gone so much as it is in December I thought I needed to be the anchor at home with the kids and everything," Judy Marshall said. "Plus, I'm not a show kind of person. I prefer to just stay in the background."
Though the effects of Jack Marshall's hectic December schedule were definitely felt by Judy and the couple's four children, who are now grown, the family supported his annual identity change.
"He enjoys it and I think the kids have enjoyed him doing it, too," she said. "They're proud of their dad."
The Marshall kids grew up thinking their dad was the actual Santa Claus, not just a guy who dressed up as Santa Claus, Judy Marshall said. It is a belief held by many Juneau children.
"When we're in the grocery store or something, kids will think he's Santa Claus and run up and give him a hug," she said.
Marshall, who in his retirement works as a substitute teacher in the Juneau schools, tells students who recognize him as Santa that he's Santa on vacation, that the reindeer are still up at the North Pole, and that he flies Alaska Airlines because he doesn't want to wear out his reindeer.
"I try to say things that are a part of the story, logical," Marshall said. "The kids aren't stupid."
In addition to substitute teaching, "Santa on Vacation" serves as treasurer for the Retired Public Employees of Alaska, a group he helped establish, volunteers with his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and works with the National Senior Corps. He also has a small computer consulting business.
Almost all of Marshall's post-retirement activity revolves around helping people and making their lives better - a trend that culminates in his Christmas activity. Marshall earns $600 to $800 a season playing Santa Claus and donates more than half of it to the community in the form of Christmas presents for needy families.
"I really keep my ears open for kids who aren't going to have too good a Christmas," Marshall said. "The money I make as Santa Claus goes to those kind of kids."
Last year, Marshall and the Capital City Weekly solicited letters to Santa Claus from community members. Marshall and the paper chose a particularly needy family, bought presents for all of its members, and delivered the presents on Christmas Eve.
Playing Santa "is really rewarding, but at times it's really tough," Marshall said. "Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes."
Nevertheless, Marshall believes his role is an important one.
"I realize that Santa's associated strongly with the commercial side of Christmas," Marshall said. "But in fact, Santa's a spirit ... the spirit of giving and not expecting to receive back. It's reflective of that deep need to have love and to get it unconditionally, and that's what Santa gives."
Christine Schmid can be reached at email@example.com.
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