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School teaches how to be Santas

DETROIT — Some come for the camaraderie; it's like a Santa support group.

Some come to learn the basics.

Consider first-timer Jim Robinson, a retired and rotund band director from Alabama who now lives in Chicago.

A friend suggested that Robinson, 59, consider landing some Santa gigs because he had "the perfect body for it."

"And I thought: At last, somebody thinks I've got the perfect body," he says.

On this autumn day, loud guffaws fill Santa House, the fairy tale cottage in downtown Midland, Mich., where Santa greets children every December, and where dozens of stand-in St. Nicks and closet Clauses have gathered for a three-day seminar.

The space is bursting with holiday cheer and big-bellied men in red and white, possessing easy smiles and flowing white hair.

One by one, about 70 students of the Santa mystique introduce themselves at the annual Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland. It's named after the man who portrayed Santa in Macy's New York Thanksgiving Day parade for decades. The school's dean and its headmaster are Midland couple Tom and Holly Valent, who have portrayed the North Pole's first couple since the 1970s.

The annual workshop is like "a three-day hug with cookies," says LuAnn Peterson, 54, of Lindstrom, Minn. She is one of several women perfecting their Mrs. Claus character. All are clearly excited and energized.

"I'm a firm believer that you don't get selected to be a Santa," says Leon McBryde, 66, who was Buttons the Clown for Ringling Brothers Circus and sweats the Santa gig in Miami. "You're born to be a Santa."

The Valents charge $390 for a new student, $350 for returnees. They turn people away, cutting off registration in July for their once-a-year Santa session.

Subjects include the Santa chuckle.

"It's a laugh, not what Santa says," Tom Valent told his students. "Practice your laugh and throw the ho-ho-ho on top of it. If you use it as a noun, it's not going to work."

And how should a Santa respond if confronted by a skeptic?

"I'm the spirit of Christmas. I stand for love and giving," Valent says. "That's the real answer."

During the three-day seminar, the Santas stage mock TV interviews and take turns boarding a sleigh, which the Valents built with a complement of reindeer.

The Santas take lessons in sign language to be able to wish Merry Christmas to a deaf child. They practice jazz squares in dance lessons designed to make them appear light on their feet, and they are briefed on the differences between a scotch pine and a fraser fir Christmas tree.

They study beard care. They learn that Yak hair makes the best fake beards, and bleaching a natural one softens those wiry white hairs.

The Santas also board buses to tour Bronner's Christmas emporium and eat a chicken dinner in Frankenmuth, Mich. They descend on a Toys R Us in Saginaw, Mich., to learn the latest Christmas must-haves (Zhu Zhu pet hamsters top the list this year).

One of the session's highlights is when Tom Valent asks some of the participants to put on Santa suits and meet some children from nearby schools.

Valent chose Bert Boldt, a first-time Santa school attendee, to meet some special-needs students from a local school.

Boldt, 64, a semi-retired physical therapist from Tallahassee, Fla., got the Santa urge after a friend gave him a Santa suit. On a lark, he wore it on a plane flight. During a layover in Detroit, families ambled over with their kids. He loved how Santa made the kids feel and how it made him feel.

"It felt like a ministry to me," says Boldt, who has enrolled in Santa school to "learn to be as perfect as I can be for other people."

Jerry Julian of Colorado Springs, Colo., always wears a red Harley shirt and red do-rag. He's gray-bearded and long-haired, kind of a hippie-like Santa, and a lean one at that, a veteran of the Pikes Peak marathon.

Even when he is not in character, kids approach him often. And when they do, he says, he drops whatever he's doing to talk to the curious.

"Last time I saw you, you were asleep," he will say. "I'm a stroller magnet."

One of the rules that Tom Valent stresses is that Santas shouldn't make promises they can't keep. Even if Mom is nodding her head, indicating that a kid's most-desired gift will be under the tree, Valent counsels Santas not to portray it as a certainty.

As for the difficult questions — if a child asks for a parent soldier to come home from Iraq, for divorced parents to get together, for Mommy to come home from the hospital — Valent counsels a hopeful and prayerful wish.

"I tell them that we're going to write it down in a book, and Mrs. Claus and I will pray for that," Valent says. "And that's what we do."

A few weeks after his 12th visit to Santa school, Jack Lawing has begun his 11th year as Santa at Laurel Park Place Mall in Detroit. Lawing is a retired Farmington Hills, Mich., school administrator who now lives in Loudon, Tenn., but he has 15 grandchildren in the Detroit area.

In more prosperous times, the mall arranged for him to helicopter in for a grand entrance. "This year, I just walked in and sat down," Lawing says.

"Being Santa changes you," he says. "It does clean up my act. I never sit at a restaurant table with a beer in front of me. You never are belligerent. You really pay attention to what you say and what you do in public.

"It really changes your life."