WINONA LAKE — Most people dread their hair turning white as they grow older. For the affable Gerald Cox, though, it worked out just fine.
The Winona Lake resident has played the role of Santa Claus for the past “10 years or so,” making a couple of appearances a week in northern Indiana and Cadillac, Mich., between Thanksgiving week and Christmas.
“This year I’m guessing I’ll see close to 500 children,” he said.
He got his start as Jolly Old St. Nick at the Warsaw Community Public Library where, Beth Anne, his wife of 34 years, worked in the children’s department. The Santa who had been scheduled to work “dropped out” at the last minute and Cox pinch-hit like a natural.
He plied that gig for four years and moved on to other venues. Every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving he — and Beth Anne as Mrs. Claus — throw the switch on the municipal Christmas tree in Cadillac.
He’s worked as Santa in Fort Wayne and has also made appearances at the Warsaw YMCA, a dance school in Columbia City and the annual educators breakfast at Grace College and has “done a couple little things in area schools.”
“Every year, we usually have a few different things to do,” he said, including taking calls from kids on a local radio station and bestowing a Christmas surprise upon a family whose son had recently passed away. “Every year we seem to get another one.”
Cox is well-known enough that he has a Facebook page chronicling his role as Santa.
Cox has compiled many anecdotes — humorous, endearing and heartbreaking — about the thousands of children who have hopped on his lap to bare their little souls.
“One of the funniest ones was a little girl who told me I should have a pink suit. She was wearing pink from head to toe. I told her, ‘I bet your favorite color is pink.’ She looked at me and said, ‘How did you know that?’ Then she asked for a pink chain saw.
“Another girl told me, ‘I want a bed for a puppy and toys for a puppy and a bowl for a puppy — and a puppy.’”
Cox recalled one “sweet” interaction where a girl asked nothing for herself but wanted “a happy Christmas for my mother.”
Not all interactions evoke a smile. “Some kids want a place to live or their father to come back or a job for their parents,” he said. “But the whole thing about Christmas and Santa Claus is even in the sadness there is kindness to bring a smile to the faces of adults and children.”
“There are always a few who are afraid or shy or go to Mrs. Claus. She likes to hold the newborn babies and sometimes she gives them back,” he quipped.
Cox has been involved in theater since high school and minored in theater at Ball State University, where he graduated in 1985 with a major in television and radio production. He used the same equipment late-night TV legend David Letterman used until computers turned that equipment into museum relics.
He started a community theater in Warsaw and has been involved in all 11 of its Wagon Wheel productions, “on stage or backstage,” and has directed “MASH” and “Our Town.”
Under the moniker of “Grizz,” Cox has played Civil War-era baseball for the Winona Lake Blue Laws, Warsaw Fleetfoots and Huntington Champion Hill Toppers. “It is theatrical and historical,” he said.
“My greeting is Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and just be kind to people,” he said. “It doesn’t cost anything and is a gift everybody can give no matter what their situation.”