Gretchen Roufs' portraitJust as Clark Kent knows Superman, Dan Betlock knows Santa Claus. Dan, a senior sales associate for Savoie Supply, a Minneapolis distributor, always has a busy December.

Dan’s involvement with his Christmas-time alter-ego started some 20 years ago when his then-employer, having heard that Dan had played the role at a private party, asked him to appear at the company Christmas party. “I told him I’d be willing to do it, but that I would need new equipment. I found a top-of-the-line costume (not including the beard) for $600. My employer said he’d pay for half of it,” Dan said. “That same day, a bank called me, saying they needed a Santa in their lobby. I told them I would need a $600 outfit to do the job, and they said they’d pay for half of it.” Magically, Dan’s expenses were covered and he found himself in the Santa business.

Santa Claus worked in bank lobbies for about 10 years, until political correctness took over and Santa in secular settings became unpopular. Dan then decided to visit nursing homes. At the first nursing home he went to, he ran into a white-whiskered clone in a familiar red and white suit. The other guy didn’t have a very jolly disposition; he chased Dan out, saying “Get out of here — I’m already here!” That ended Dan’s nursing home career.

These days, Dan and his wife Peggy donate their time to their church. Visits in private homes from Santa and Mrs. Claus are auctioned off at the church’s fall festival. For these appearances, Mrs. Claus prepares a personalized book for the children. When Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive, the kids are greeted by name, and Santa reads their special stories to them. Each child is mentioned in the book. Dan said, “We talk about the good things they do, along with the ‘not-so-nice’ things. The kids are amazed that Santa knows all about them.”

Dan says there’s great peril in the Santa business. “One boy desperately wanted a pet cobra, and told me I could just throw it in my bag. Santa does not like snakes, so I got out of it by telling him that Rudolph (the reindeer) might make a mistake and deliver it to the wrong house.”

Another tricky part of the job is wearing the full beard and costume — the ensemble can make attentive driving nearly impossible. One year, Santa parked his brand-new vehicle in a nearby lot before appearing at the Savoie company Christmas party. “Afterward, I got into my ‘sleigh’, and as I was leaving I drove over a ‘no parking’ sign. I caused $1,000 worth of damage to the vehicle.” Santa no longer does company parties, and Mrs. Claus now drives the sleigh.

Santa’s $600 suit is a fine garment of red velvet with rabbit-fur trim. But there’s more to Santa than the beard and the red suit. According to Dan, “I don’t take the profession lightly. There’s the personality, the voice, the laughter. Santa’s loud, boisterous laugh is hard on the throat. You have to stay in character.”

Dan doesn’t work on Christmas Eve. Instead, he goes to midnight mass at his church and sings in the church choir. Coincidentally, I also attend mass on Christmas Eve in Minneapolis every year. From now on, I’m going to listen very carefully for that wonderful, robust Santa laugh. You never know where you might run into Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

Gretchen Roufs, a 15-year janitorial supply industry veteran, owns Auxiliary Marketing Services of San Antonio. To suggest someone you think should be featured in “freetime,” contact her at (210) 601-4572.