December 23, 2011 8:51:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
It's no secret St. Nicholas has his hands full this time of year, what with checking lists twice and headlining tonight's worldwide tour. In spite of those hectic demands, there are a few pre-Christmas visits he refuses to miss. They're that important to him.
Laden with fruit baskets and other gifts, this jolly ole elf -- hospital volunteer Larry Bennett -- has made a point of visiting patients of Baptist Hospice-Golden Triangle in their homes since 1998.
For Bill Walker of New Hope, it was a welcome chance to talk of Christmases past with the man in the red suit. For Sallie, his wife and caregiver, it was a heartwarming interlude as she helps her husband face the daily challenges of Alzheimer's.
The Walkers are well-known to the New Hope Trojans' community as "Mamaw" and "Papaw" -- two of the school's most ardent sports fans. They even followed the baseball team to Hawaii.
"We didn't hardly miss a game. All those awards around that (school) fence, until this year, no state tournament was ever won but that we weren't there," said Sallie proudly of her grandchildren's alma mater. "Is that lovin' 'em or what?"
She added, "It's the same with Mississippi State. We've even been to Omaha twice to follow them; that was my anniversary present from Bill," she smiled.
This year, however, has brought a new reality. Since March, her husband hasn't been out of the house -- except for a wheelchair outing to vote. Which is why the care he receives from Baptist Hospice, and the visit from St. Nick, mean so much -- not only to the Walkers, but to everyone getting a personal visit.
"Oh, it was just wonderful!" said Sallie, who loved seeing her husband's eyes light up.
It's equally rewarding for "Santa," who retired from Omnova in 1996, after 34 years, and almost immediately joined the hospital volunteer auxiliary.
"It's hard to put into words. It's very, very satisfying. What little bit I can do, not only for the patients, but for the caregivers, too, I'm glad to do," said Bennett, an humble, but imposing 6-feet-plus. No fake whiskers or pillow-stuffing here; he was made for this role.
Admittedly, looking the part took a little work in the beginning.
"I'm a perfectionist I guess in certain ways; if I was going to be Santa Claus, I wanted to be as good at it as I could. I actually went to a beauty supply place and got me some Blonde and Beautiful to bleach my beard," he laughed. "That was, until Mother Nature did it for me. I'm 71 now and, after a while, things seemed to take care of themselves."
Pam Foster is director of Baptist Hospice-Golden Triangle.
"Larry just has kind of a heart for hospice care and making their day," she began. "Sometimes the patients even gather their families to be there ... kids, grandkids. Everyone gets their picture made with Santa, for a keepsake."
Social worker Katie Crews accompanied Bennett on his visits and added, "He looks just like Santa Claus," she smiled. "Everybody loves it. They just keep wanting to hug him and shake his hand. A few ladies even want to feel his beard to see if it's real."
Bennett would much prefer the focus be on the Baptist Hospice staff who care regularly for the people he sees at Christmas time -- the nurses, nursing assistants, social workers and chaplain who help meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of each patient.
400 and counting
Bennett's Santa gig extends to the halls of Baptist Memorial Hospital, too.
"I guess I'm like the Walmart greeter of Outpatient Surgery," he chuckled quietly, referring to his normal Tuesday volunteer stint, where he helps get patients checked in and to their appointed rounds.
"By and large, if a kid sees me, they get the big eyes, and the jaw drop is automatic," Bennett said. "The grown folks, they usually react very positively. Eighty percent of the time, they'll say 'Ho, ho, ho.'"
To which he answers: "Wait, that's my line."
He can measure his hospital-hall mileage in Dum Dum suckers. He's given out more than 400 this year.
He's quick to credit the goodwill his appearance generates to the almost universally-beloved Santa persona that somehow seems a touchstone, especially for the hospice patients he visits.
"Almost 100 percent of the time, before it's over, they usually go back and start talking about Christmases past, about things that happened long ago." That persona, he believes, brings back good memories.
Christmas Day is now only hours away. Before long, Bennett's and all Santa's helpers' red suits will be stored away. But the spirit that infuses Christmas doesn't have to be. Not if we can find that bit of Santa in all of us -- that bit that inspires us to do something unselfish for someone else, expecting nothing in return.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.