ALPENA - When Santa waves at you from his float at the end of today's parade, don't be surprised if he calls to you by name and wishes you a Merry Christmas.
Ron Lemke, a volunteer Santa for 50 years, knows just about everybody in town. He and wife Cheryl spent their careers working in the region's school districts - he as a vocational counselor, she a school nurse. And as Santa, he's seen kids, their parents and even their grandparents grow up.
In addition to the parade, he and his wife will spend from now until Christmas appearing at an almost non-stop series of events at homes, schools, clubs, businesses and hospitals.
"I always experience 10 seconds of anxiety before I go in to visit a group," the 66-year-old said. "You don't know during the first few seconds how you are going to be received."
One of his goals is to make young children feel special, he said. He also wants children to believe in the jolly old man's magic.
"Kids need to be kids for as long as they can," said Cheryl, who goes with him to each gathering. "What's the harm in letting children be young and have that illusion and wonderment."
What: Bolenz Jewelry Holiday Parade
When: Friday at 5:30 p.m.
Where: The Parade begins at the County Annex building at the corner of Chisholm and Ninth Street and ends in the parking lot behind City Hall.
Tree lighting ceremony to follow the parade.
But there are costs. The job is physically demanding, Ron said.
"It's hard to have 100 kids sit on your lap," he said. "I lift them up and down or have siblings on each knee or their parents, who are quite heavy, holding their own children."
So he usually prefers to stand or walk around during most of his appearances.
"I will never sit in a chair for four hours," he said.
Another drawback is the costume. His wife made it out of red velvet and satin, and the jacket, trousers, belt, hat and wig combined, weigh more than 20 pounds. Add heat and exertion and Ron's head can be soaking wet with sweat in minutes.
"You're in and out of the car from hot to cold, hot to cold all of the time," he said.
Wardrobe malfunctions are painful. Helping him to get dressed, Cheryl uses bobbypins to attach his fluffy artificial beard to his facial hair. So when a child's hand or coat button gets caught in its curly strands, the result is painful.
Also, Santa refrains from drinking spiked egg nog and other alcoholic beverages before, during and after the job.
"The kids would pick up on that," he said. "I would never make a fool of myself in front of a adult or child."
He also has to lay off the garlic during the season. And just in case, Cheryl supplies him with breath mints.
Ron started his career as Santa at the age of 16 in Wisconsin and used his earnings to pay for college. Later, when he and Cheryl moved to Alpena in 1972, he only accepted donations for his appearances, and turns every penny over to charities. Recipients include the Salvation Army, Hospice, the Sunrise Mission, FFA, Boys & Girls Club, even Indian reservations in the Dakotas. The couple also buys coats and books for youngsters.
But those costs could simply be considered investments, considering the rewards Ron and Cheryl have experienced.
The biggest one comes from a simple idea he plants in every child's mind when he learns what they want for Christmas.
"I tell them that their parents and grandparents work hard to get the gifts, and Santa only brings them," he said. "Then I tell the kids to tell their parents 'I love you' on Christmas Day."
Cheryl also shares in the rewards.
"People ask me why we give away the coats, the books and do all the stuff and I just look at them and tell them we are very blessed," she said. "Our daughter is healthy, our grandson is healthy, we have a home. We are very lucky people."
But the biggest payback?
"I get more pleasure out of it than the kids do," Ron said.
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.