It was George Hipple's twinkling eyes that got him his Santa Claus job eight years ago at The Mall in Columbia. The beard came later.
"Because it was getting colder outside, I had decided to do my morning walks inside the mall," said the 70-year-old Laurel resident. "I started walking and, before long, a lady came out of the marketing office and asked me if I would be Santa Claus."
At first, Mr. Hipple, who had recently retired as a printer with IBM, was surprised. With no beard and no belly, he couldn't imagine why he had been approached.
"When I asked, she told me I had a twinkle in my eye," he said.
And six weeks later the jolly Mr. Hipple made his debut at the mall, sporting a one-inch beard that happened to grow in white.
It was love at first sight between Santa and the children, and the experience has become an annual one ever since for Mr. Hipple.
"I get more than what I give," said Mr. Hipple, who lives with his wife, Anita, 70, and has three grown children and four grandchildren.
Today, with a pull-proof beard about six inches long and a personality that clicks with kids, it's little wonder so many of them visit each year with the man they refer to as the "real" Santa Claus.
Working six and one-half hour weekdays and seven-hour Saturdays, Mr. Hipple estimates he sees from 200 to 500 children a day.
"I hug each one," he said.
One day recently, a long line of anxious children and parents snaked through the Santa Center stationed in front of the Woodward and Lothrop department store at the mall.
"I want a lizard," said a little boy seated on Santa's lap.
With a hug and some dialogue about reptiles, the two posed while Renee Wolfkill, manager of the Santa Center, snapped a photograph.
Another tyke, who had already had a turn with Santa, nervously )) twisted his dinosaur necklace as he waited for Santa's attention a second time. When he asked for another hug, he was immediately encircled in Mr. Hipple's arms.
L Not all children are enthralled with meeting Santa, however.
One toddler, being carried by her mother, burst into tears when she caught sight of the costumed Mr. Hipple.
Without losing stride, the mother continued walking past Santa, giving up on the idea of a photograph of her child on Santa's lap.
"These parents want their children on my lap so bad and will sometimes try anything," said Mr. Hipple. "We don't win 100 percent, but we do pretty good."
Getting a quick, on-the-job education in child psychology, Mr. Hipple has learned a few things, like "talking quietly and getting to their physical level."
But answering the two most commonly asked questions -- "Where is Rudolph?" and "How did you get here?" -- can be tricky.
"I tell them I have a secret way of getting here and no one knows except for Santa," Mr. Hipple said.
As for requests, Santa has heard it all.
"Last week, I asked a little boy who was about 6 years old what he wanted for Christmas, and he asked me, 'What do you got?' "
Occupational hazards can vary from a wet lap caused by a youngster's soaked diaper to lunches missed when children stop him on his way through the mall.
But Mr. Hipple isn't complaining.
"When these children come back to me and say, 'I forgot to hug you,' it makes me feel so good," Mr. Hipple said. "You cannot buy such things; they are priceless."