Santa Suits Him

Charles Fischer was the spirit of Christmas in Williamsport for 40 years -- until his heart told him to stop.

December 24, 2003|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

WILLIAMSPORT - The man who has played Santa Claus for nearly 40 years was digging in his back yard this past summer when he got so tired he had to stop and sit down.

Charles Fischer tried to brush it off. He told himself he was almost 69 years old, and these things happen as you age. But the truth was he had been reminded of his limitations before. Last year, around this time, he caught the flu and wasn't able to wear the red suit with white fur, the hat and gloves, the beard and the curly, white-haired wig.

It was the first year since the early 1960s that Fischer, who lost his 35-year job at a label-making factory when it closed in 1992, had not been Santa by his choosing. There were two years when a new mayor used another man, but otherwise it was Fischer who put on the gold-rimmed glasses and black boot covers every December.

It was Fischer who carried his antique sleigh bells to Town Hall the five nights leading up to Christmas Eve.

It was Fischer who left his house every Christmas morning before 7 a.m., drove to the fire station regardless of weather, climbed on board an engine wearing his costume, and continued the Williamsport tradition of parading Santa down every street in town.

"Just like a fireman, how a fireman can't get away from a fire, that's how I was with Santa Claus," Fischer said.

He took the job at a time when the fire department needed him. The man who had played the part through the 1940s and '50s, Hubert "Hoots" Mills, was retiring, and the nearest Santa was miles away at the Sears in Hagerstown. In those days, boys and girls who grew up in the rolling foothills of Western Maryland had come to expect a visit from Kris Kringle. They knew they could spend a few minutes on his knee, ask for whatever they desired, and be sent home with a box of old-fashioned candy - malted balls, orange slices, peach blossoms, chocolate bonbons - and an orange.

The crowds that used to come, as many as 150 children a night, and some from Marlowe across the West Virginia state line, dropped over the years as shopping malls spread and the number of Santas grew. The last few years there has been enough candy and oranges left over for Fischer and the Williamsport mayor to visit shut-ins and nursing homes.

If he was asked to come to someone's house or sit at the American Legion or the Red Men Club or stand outside the S.S. Kresge department store (back when there was one), Fischer went without hesitating. He never cared that the job didn't pay. He didn't do it for the money.

There was no elaborate sleigh for him to sit on in the early days, and no animated reindeer in the lighted-up town park like there is now. But he didn't do it for the attention, either. He was always careful to wait and change into the suit once he got to the fire station; he didn't want any children to ever see Santa climb out of a car.

Fischer made a good St. Nick not so much because he looked the part - he was never fat enough, and his salt-and-pepper gray hair was buzzed to a flat-top - but because he had a jolly laugh, piercing blue eyes and, most of all, a generous heart.

He was kind enough to give every child his full attention. He listened to poor children ask for things he knew they would never receive. He heard other children say they wanted no toys, but for their parents to live together. Fischer knew better than to promise things a stranger in a costume could not guarantee. He tried to make every child feel good, if only for a while; that was his gift.

Fischer was Santa so often he wore the first suit out. The town bought him a fancy new suit made of silk but the beard had begun to show wear, so the town ordered a new one in time for this Christmas season.

And Fischer would be wearing it now if his heart had not begun to wear out.

The doctors said the tiredness that appeared a few years ago and grew worse during the summer and fall was a sign that his heart was not pumping as much blood as it should, and his lungs were not getting enough oxygen.

No more lifting children, the doctor said.

No more riding a fire engine in the cold.

You can't be Santa anymore.

A Williamsport council member, Monty Jones, stepped into the role, and tomorrow morning it will be Jones waving from the fire engine that drives down every street in town.

As for Fischer, he put the suit on one last time before he took it to the nursing home where his wife of 45 years, Donna Fischer, works, and where the Santa needs to borrow a suit.

Fischer put on the suit one last time because his children, Joni White and Charles Fischer Jr., had their picture made with him as a Santa years ago. Then his grandchildren had their pictures taken on Santa's lap, until one recognized her Pappy's voice, another spotted his shoes, and the third and fourth outgrew the innocence you need to believe in magic.

Fischer put the suit on one last time to visit his 2-year-old great-granddaughter, Sally Fischer. She may be the only person left in Williamsport who doesn't know who the real Santa is - whether he wears the suit or not.

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