Senior Santa ponders retirement

Children's whispers make it hard for Sterling man to say no to familiar role

Posted: Monday, December 18, 2000

Forty years commuting from the North Pole, delivering sacks of toys around the world and hoisting hundreds of children on and off the lap can wear down even the jolliest old elf.

However, this year when Carl Mallett, as he is known the rest of the year, thought about hanging up his red cap for good, he found he could not do it.

This fall, the octogenarian from Sterling was in the hospital with double pneumonia. Then he was on oxygen.

But as he recovered and people's thoughts turned toward Christmas cheer, he noticed the children eyeing him. Three little girls followed him in a restaurant. And at the store a little boy tugged on his daddy's jacket and said, "I know that's him."

When the Parent Teacher Association at Sterling Elementary School asked him to visit, he had to accept. Next thing he knew, he was signed up for the three-day open house at the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna and the annual children's party at the Sterling Senior Center.

"It's a gift gave to me," he said of his calling.

He and his wife, Mary, alias Mrs. Claus, have years of fond Christmas memories.

Some encounters have been poignant. Children have asked Santa to help their parents stop fighting or get back together.

"One little kid said she didn't want nothing for Christmas. All she wanted was for her mother to not be sick," Carl recalled.

Other memorable encounters have been cute.

One boy promised his mother he would have his picture taken every year with Santa until he grew up and dutifully returned annually through his 17th year.

One year a shy little girl came to see him every day and then gave him a gift. She had packaged milk and cookies ahead of time for him, explaining that she had to be out of town on Christmas Day.

Children seem most impressed by his beard, checking and tugging to make sure it is real. Some, distressed by amateur Santa look-alikes in wigs, are visibly relieved, they said.

The beard is what started it. This time of year especially, Carl's flowing white locks stand out in a crowd.

When he was in his early 40s, he was tapped to play Santa for the police boys' club back in Ohio. The role felt so natural he gravitated to it year after year.

It was an interesting career choice for a man who had been a professional wrestler in his youth and spent most of his working life manufacturing surgical gloves.

But life at the Mallett home always was about children.

Carl was the 13th of 16 siblings. He and Mary bore eight of their own, but that was only the beginning.

"We took some from the court," he said. "Altogether we raised 16."

Now they barely can keep track of their descendants. They said they have about 30 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and 15 "great-greats."

"We've been married 56 years," Mary said. "We had a big tribe."

She was quick to point out one of the family ironies.

"When our kids were young, they weren't allowed to have long hair," she said. "Then here comes this over-the-hill hippy."

The Malletts discovered the Kenai Peninsula in 1981 when they came to visit a son who was in the military stationed in Alaska. Mary was retiring from her job in a nursing home and Carl from his, too.

"By May of the next year, were were moving up here," Mary said. "We wouldn't move back to Ohio if they gave us the whole state."

They got involved in the Sterling Senior Center. Mary served as its president, and the two of them helped build the center. When the seniors had Christmas parties for the Sterling children, Carl donned his red and white outfit and entertained the youngsters.

Soon other businesses and groups were calling him up, and he was a holiday regular at the fire hall, malls and preschools in Soldotna.

Now the Malletts are torn between the holiday allure and the temptation to slow down.

Mary has been recovering from cataract surgery and sewing up a storm, making vests, jackets and nightgowns. Carl has been baking cookies by the gross. They are preparing for about 30 descendants to visit for the holidays, they said.

"I get up in the morning and wonder if I'm coming or going," Carl said. "But it's worth it."

Mary shared his mixed feelings about the busy but beautiful season.

"One of these days he's not going to be able to do it," she said. "What will they do then?"

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