Jack Marshall thought that playing Santa Claus would be a one-season stint. He's ended up portraying Santa for 26 years.
"He is the real deal," said Barry Bunnell, who hired Marshall to pose with children and pets this year at Mendenhall Mall. "He has the real beard."
Marshall is one of four playing the part for photos at Juneau's malls this season.
He has the look. His hair has been naturally white since he was 23. Every year before the Christmas season starts, he has his gray beard bleached. "It gives me some really rosy cheeks," Marshall said in a low and gentle voice. He shaves his hair and beard only once a year, on Dec. 26.
Children even approach and hug him when he's in civilian clothes.
Marshall first donned the red suit while he lived in Ketchikan in 1978, when his church requested it. The Totem Heritage Center heard of him and invited him to meet a group of Tsimshian children from Metlakatla.
"One day, a little boy got on my lap. He told me he wanted a Tonka truck. He described the exact kind of tire and the color of the truck. I remembered him particularly. When I handed him a bag of goodies, he said, 'Don't forget me this year.' Then I realized for some of these kids, a visit with Santa might be the only thing they got for Christmas. The boy disappeared in the crowd and I've never seen him again. But at that moment, I decided to be a Santa Claus," Marshall said.
The following year, he visited the Tsimshian children at the Totem Heritage Center again. The organizer prepared a Santa's suit for Marshall but misplaced the coat. Then one woman took off a red Tlingit button blanket on the wall and wrapped Marshall in the blanket.
"I was very worried because it is a very valuable blanket," Marshall said. "But the kids loved it and I wore the blanket every year."
Before he left Ketchikan for Juneau, he got a chance to meet the blanket's owner.
"It was a Native woman, probably about 75 pounds and well over 100 years old," Marshall said. "Her wish was to sit on Santa's lap."
When he moved to Juneau in 1984, Marshall continued to play Santa Claus. His youngest daughter played an elf before she went to college.
Every year, he visits the Bartlett Regional Hospital and Wildflower Court. He goes to church events and photo studios. He once posed with a 20-foot-long snake and a 90-pound pig.
"Pets are like children," Marshall said. "They need love, too."
Playing Santa Claus, Marshall knows the latest trend in toys.
"The boys like X-box and Power Rangers. The girls like Barbie dolls and Cabbage Patch Kids," Marshall said. "And live animals, one sort or another, are always popular."
Marshall said some of the children's answers break his heart.
"Some of them lost their parents and want Santa to bring them back. I have to explain to them that it is beyond the ability of Santa Claus. I tell them that they should always remember them but they need to go forward and live a good life," he said. "Some of the kids' parents are divorced and they think it is their fault. I tell them that it is not their fault and that Santa always loves them and listens to them."
Since last year, Marshall has paired with Ann Park, who volunteers to play Mrs. Claus.
Park had a tailor make her a red velvet dress with white furs around the sleeves and the bottom of her dress. She also has a matching red velvet cap and white hand muff with a golden star.
Because she can use American Sign Language, she can communicate with deaf children and tell Marshall what they want for Christmas.
Marshall has inspired Rick Helms, who has played Santa Claus for 10 years himself.
Helms doesn't want to reveal his age. "Santa is ageless," he said. He started playing Santa Claus at a friend's request and then has broadened his client base.
"When people talk about Santa, they think of Jack," Helms said. "I hope someday, they can think of me."
After hearing so many children's wishes, Marshall said he just has a simple wish himself.
"I want everyone to be happy," Marshall said.
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.