Santa Claus in Howard County is named Daniel W. Bennett Jr.
"If I can find no one else to help a senior, I always can call Dan because he always comes through," said Vivian L. Reid, director of Howard County's Office of Aging.
Mr. Bennett, an architect with Howard County's Public Works Department, was busy this week, purchasing yams, greens, corn and fruit at Produce Galore in Columbia for gift baskets that the Howard County Office of Aging will distribute to needy elderly people at Christmas.
"Don't say it is just Dan," said Mr. Bennett, who can be a crusty curmudgeon on the job. "It is Dan's friends." He named several dozen business executives and county government officials who have responded to his plea and donated money for the gift baskets. He also has persuaded Produce Galore and Heavenly Ham stores in the Columbia area to donate food.
Last year, 71 baskets were donated, filled with canned foods, turkeys, hams and chickens, produce, toilet items, gloves and scarfs and $10 in cash. Ms. Cressman said the Salvation Army also helps with the project, giving money vouchers.
Past recipients have asked: "Is that man going to help us this year?" Ms. Harris said. One elderly woman from Savage was so touched that she wrote a letter to the county Office of Aging telling how significant it was for her holiday.
"The Christmas food basket you brought me came just when I could use it the most," she said. "I can't find the words to use to thank you. It brought tears to my eyes."
Ms. Reid said she has never known anyone as willing to help people in trouble as Mr. Bennett. "You can visualize what kind of person Santa Claus might be, but when I think of him, I see Dan," said Ms. Reid, who has headed the county Office of Aging for 15 years. "He is exuberant with his love, and he does it without the people knowing where the gifts come from."
Mr. Bennett, 61, learned the art of giving from his parents, who assembled gift baskets in Hampton, Va., and distributed them during the holidays.
"It is a family tradition I inherited," he said.
When he turned 19 and worked in a shipyard in his hometown, Mr. Bennett joined his parents in providing food and gifts to a family.
The practice of giving continued when he organized a similar drive as a member of a social club at Virginia Polytechnic Institute at Blacksburg, Va., and later in Falls Church, Va., where he and his wife, Lou, lived before coming to Columbia in 1971.
Recently his sons, 29-year-old William G. Bennett in New York City, and 33-year-old Daniel Bennett III, in Philadelphia, phoned him to say they plan to carry on the practice of providing support to needy people over the holidays.
"I feel great that the tradition is not going to die with me," Mr. Bennett said.
Barbara A. Harris, supervisor of client services for the county's Office of Aging, said her agency identifies elderly people to receive the baskets assembled by Mr. Bennett.
Not all of the $1,500 raised by Mr. Bennett is spent on food and personal items, Ms. Harris said. "One elderly lady received a deposit to help her move into an apartment. Another elderly person needed a dehumidifier and got one."
After 42 years of donating and raising money to provide gifts for those in need, Mr. Bennett said he finally agreed to be interviewed "so we can get the word out that there are people in Howard County with whom we can share the Christmas spirit, and the Office of Aging is a vehicle to make that happen."