Santa Claus is living in town
Al Terpening grew up to be his idol. At 72, there is no mistaking that his eyes twinkle, his dimples are merry, his cheeks are like roses, his nose like a cherry.
“The neighborhood I was growing up in had a lot of poverty. Where I was born in Rhode Island there wasn’t that much for kids,” he said, an Eastern lilt tingeing every word. “As I got older I started to celebrate Christmas with the kids that were unfortunate like me. Then I played Santa Claus in the neighborhood.”
At first Terpening wore a wig to portray Father Christmas.
Then he realized he could grow out his blonde beard and spray it white. One year he went so far as to have a beauty student dye it. It mattered, he said. He wanted it to be just right. But the results were disastrous. The bleach burned his face.
Five years ago, however, like a Christmas miracle, the whiskers started coming in more white than blonde or gray. Terpening grew out a full beard and to his amazement was pretty certain he’d nailed the look.
“You know how you find out?” he asked. “Around Halloween when you start walking through the stores and the kids start looking at you.
“I was at Smiths over there on Highway 50 one day and some lady had a problem with her kid a couple aisles back, so I just went, ‘Ho Ho Ho.’ She brought the kids around and introduced me. She was tickled to death after that.”
When Christmas is over (too quickly in Terpening’s estimation) he shaves off the beard as a gift to his wife of five decades, Joan. He stays pink-faced for four months, then the day after their wedding anniversary on April 4, he starts growing it back in.
It’s a ritual he’s fine-tuned over the years and one he intends to continue.
The payback he receives portraying the world’s most recognized icon is fulfilling and heartbreaking at the same time, he said.
While most children rattle off a list of the latest toys, one little girl who visited with him asked for a bed. Another child requested his parents stay together.
“Some kids, they want too much, and there’s other kids that really don’t want nothing. The only thing the kid wants is a good life,” he said. “That’s what really breaks you down inside.”
His likeness has nabbed him occasional side jobs as Santa Claus for Christmas parties or malls. But Terpening’s bursting heart has prompted him to volunteer as Santa at the Carson City Library and Eagle Valley Children’s Home where he visits with the autistic children.
“When I go to the hospital those kids remind me of me when I was growing up. I didn’t have autism, but I felt alone,” he said. “I was more or less by myself. I feel sorry for those children, and I ‘m trying to give them something to believe in.”
If Terpening had a mantra, that would be it. He said for every child that sits on his lap, he whispers in their ear to believe.
“You can tell that some of the kids they don’t believe in anything,” he said. “I tell them you gotta believe in something, no matter what it is. You gotta believe.”