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Michael Rielly

Santa hones his ho-ho-hos at a school in Michigan

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Michael Rielly

Santa hones his ho-ho-hos at a school in Michigan

November 29, 2009

Free Press

By Patricia Montemurri


On the list of things Michigan exports to the rest of the country and world, let's add that most magical of commodities: Santa.


For those who think Santa comes from the North Pole, here's a little secret: Santa -- and his worthy imitators -- gets his batteries recharged for the Christmas season in mid-Michigan.

Every autumn, about 70 Santa imitators descend on Midland, where Tom and Holly Valent have hosted the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School since 1987. License plates hint at the whimsy that fuels the Santas' voyages.


The school draws stand-in Santas from all around the world. This year, there was an elfin-like Santa from Norway, a onetime circus clown who sweats it out in Miami, and a fellow who customizes Scottish kilts to represent Clan Claus.

There are other outfits that can teach hopefuls how to be Santa. But Ernest Berger, president of the Alabama-based Santa-America volunteer service organization, said that those who attend the Charles W. Howard program show a commitment to a calling and a craft.

"There is nothing that reaches the standard of the Howard school," said Berger. "It's the gold standard."

Santas learn sleigh boarding, handling tough questions

Some come for the camaraderie; it's like a Santa support group.

Some come to learn the basics.

Consider first-timer Jim Robinson, a retired and rotund band director from Alabama who now lives in Chicago.

A friend suggested Robinson consider landing some Santa gigs because he had "the perfect body for it."

"And I thought: At last, somebody thinks I've got the perfect body," the 59-year-old said.

On this autumn day, loud guffaws fill Santa House, the fairy tale cottage in downtown Midland where Santa greets children every December, and where dozens of stand-in St. Nicks and closet Clauses have gathered for a three-day seminar.

The space is bursting with holiday cheer and big-bellied men in red and white, possessing easy smiles and flowing white hair.

One by one, about 70 students of the Santa mystique introduce themselves at the annual Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland. It's named after the man who portrayed Santa in Macy's New York Thanksgiving Day parade for decades. The school's dean and headmistress are Midland couple Tom and Holly Valent, who've portrayed the North Pole's first couple themselves since the 1970s.

The annual workshop is like "a three-day hug with cookies," trilled LuAnn Peterson, 54, of Lindstrom, Minn., and one of several women perfecting their Mrs. Claus character. All are clearly excited and energized.

"I'm a firm believer that you don't get selected to be a Santa," said Leon McBryde, 66, who was Buttons the Clown for Ringling Brothers Circus and sweats the Santa gig in Miami. "You're born to be a Santa."

The Valents charge $390 for a new student, $350 for returnees. They turn people away, cutting registration off in July for their once-a-year Santa session.

"It's a laugh, not what Santa says," Tom Valent told his students. "Practice your laugh and throw the ho-ho-ho on top of it. If you use it as a noun, it's not going to work."

And how should a Santa respond if confronted by a skeptic?

"I'm the spirit of Christmas. I stand for love and giving," Valent said. "That's the real answer."

Over the course of the three-day seminar, the Santas stage mock TV interviews and take turns boarding a sleigh, which the Valents constructed with a complement of reindeer.

The Santas take lessons in sign language to be able to wish Merry Christmas to a deaf child. They practice jazz squares in dance lessons designed to make them appear light on their feet, and they are briefed on the differences between a scotch pine and a fraser fir Christmas tree.

They study beard care. They learn that Yak hair makes the best fake beards and bleaching a natural one softens those wiry white hairs.

The Santas also board buses to tour Bronner's emporium and eat a chicken dinner in Frankenmuth. They descend on a toy store in Saginaw to learn the latest Christmas must-haves (Zhu Zhu pet hamsters top the list this year).

One of the session's highlights is when Tom Valent asks some of the participants to put on Santa suits and meet some children from nearby schools.


One of the rules that Tom Valent stressed is that Santas shouldn't make promises they can't keep. Even if Mom is nodding her head indicating a kid's most-desired gift will be under the tree, Valent counsels Santas not to portray it as a certainty.

As for the difficult questions -- if a child asks for a parent soldier to come home from Iraq, for divorced parents to get together, for Mommy to come home from the hospital -- Valent counsels a hopeful and prayerful wish.

"I tell them that we're going to write it down in a book, and Mrs. Claus and I will pray for that," said Valent. "And that's what we do."

A few weeks after his 12th visit to Santa school, Jack Lawing has commenced his 11th year as Santa at Laurel Park Place. Lawing is a retired Farmington Hills school administrator who now lives in Loudon, Tenn., but has 15 grandchildren in the Detroit area.

In more prosperous times, the mall arranged for him to helicopter in for a grand entrance. "This year, I just walked in and sat down," said Lawing.

There are plenty of reasons to laugh when you've got kids on your knee, he said.

One little girl was dressed in pink from head to toe. When Lawing asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said "pink."

"Pink what?" asked Santa Lawing, who hasn't cut his beard since 1976.

"Just pink," the girl said.

"Being Santa changes you," said Lawing. "It does clean up my act. I never sit at a restaurant table with a beer in front of me. You never are belligerent. You really pay attention to what you say and what you do in public.

"It really changes your life."


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Great Video! Kathi and I would love to attend but as with everyone it is not high on the budget list.

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Santa Johnny Boy

It is a dream of mine to go here someday. Probably after I retire.

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Here in Detroit the sunday free press had a real nice story on the school and pictures of santa Don & santa Tom & santa Dennis & santa Eevertt & santa Wally thay look good.

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