Owen Brown's experienced Santa has learned to think fast in his seat EAST COLUMBIA

December 08, 1992|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

He's 6 feet 3 inches tall and "on the big side," big enough to be a "Hog" on the Washington Redskins' offensive line, he reckons.

He started his unexpected reign as Owen Brown village's most famous holiday visitor with ill-fitting duds and wing tips, but now he has a tailor-made suit, a custom-designed hat and his trademark black cowboy boots.

Many of the little tykes who once sat on his knee and requested toys and bikes years later played youth football or soccer on Howard County teams he coached.

Some recognized him out of his bulky red suit.

Joe Coleman is an institution this time of year in Owen Brown.

"When you have a tailor-made Santa suit, you're there," jokes Mr. Coleman, an Owen Brown resident since 1971.

As usual, Mr. Coleman (that's Mr. Claus to the young and faithful), Owen Brown's jolly St. Nick at community events since 1974, brought good cheer and promises of presents to the Owen Brown Community Center's annual lunch held in Santa's honor Saturday.

The burly 49-year-old with the baritone voice is a natural for the job, except for bum knees that have undergone seven operations, the result of old football injuries. Mr. Coleman, a program analyst for International Business Machines Corp. in Bethesda, played football in college and for four years for a semipro team in Washington while working a construction job.

After major reconstructive knee surgery in 1989 put him in a cast, he directed the children to the good knee, which could accommodate two of them.

He told the children Santa fell out of his sleigh.

He has a tall order to live up to every year at Owen Brown's annual holiday lunch, he says.

"When a 3- or 4-year-old gets on your lap and thinks you're Santa, that's a pretty big thing for them," he says.

He was nervous the first year he accepted the village manager's invitation to be the community's Santa, comparing it to the time his oldest son, Joe, now 25, was a young boy and got to meet his idol, former Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke.

"He couldn't speak," recalls the elder Coleman of his star-struck son. "Santa Claus is like that to everybody. I didn't want to disappoint the kids. I didn't want to blow it."

He has since become skillful at making young children -- and usually their parents -- happy, using mirth, quick thinking, tact and compromise.

He has kept all the requests he has received over the years, some of them meticulously planned with a letter and a picture from a catalog.

Occasionally, he gets into a sticky situation when his 18 years' experience pays off.

One youngster once asked for a new father.

"That one got to me," says Mr. Coleman. "It's one of the few times I've been at a loss for words. I told him I'd have to think about that one and talk to his mom."

Often, he glimpses the parents waving their arms in disagreement when a child asks for an overly expensive or dangerous present. "It puts a lot of pressure on Santa Claus," he says.

And there are the odd requests, such as when one child asked him for an electric screwdriver because the child liked to take things apart.

Mr. Coleman recruited the parents to consult on that one.

Mr. Coleman had to bar his two youngest sons, Joshua, 16, and Jacob, 14, from attending the event after each turned 1, "because I thought they would peg me for Santa Claus," he says.

He doesn't aspire to be a shopping mall Santa, he says. There's too much of a factory atmosphere -- move 'em in, snap a picture, move 'em out, he says.

"I spend as much time with the kids as they want," he says. "If they want to talk, I let them.

"I've seen a lot of these kids grow up."

Mr. Coleman will continue being Owen Brown's Santa "as long as the knees hold out," he says.

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