If not for a knee replacement gone awry, Larry Pershing would be doing what he does best: playing Santa Claus.
But Pershing’s 32-year string of emulating Santa came to an abrupt halt when his left knee became infected last month and the surrogate parts had to be removed. Since then he has been recouping at University Heights Rehabilitation Center, where he will be until after the first of the year, at which time another knee replacement is on his agenda.
And while Pershing isn’t overly elated with his home away from home, his daughter Anna V. Pershing and her niece, Kayla Noel Crawshaw, have festively decorated his room for the holidays. “I have three small Christmas trees, and Anna and Kayla have outlined my TV with tinsel and put ‘snowflakes’ on the wall,” he said. “Outside of physical therapy for about 90 minutes a day, I’m in here, so at least it looks nice. Some guys from the Greenwood VFW came over last week and sang Christmas carols to me.”
Pershing, 63, began playing Santa in 1982 at Greenwood Library and fell in love with the idea. He soon was the jolly, bearded gent for children of his friends and members of the Greenwood Jaycees. From there his duties expanded to playing Santa for up to 22 families on Christmas Eve. He’s also in demand for church and school functions, private parties, the Girl and Boy Scouts and Head Start programs.
“I only play Santa for about 10 families on Christmas Eve now because I want to spend more time with my 4-year-old grandson, Caje Grayson Pershing, ” said Mr. Pershing, who’s the real deal when it comes to Santa. There is no wig, fake beard or dyed hair. Everything about his appearance is natural. “Caje thinks I’m the real Santa. He’ll say to me, ‘Papaw Santa, let’s go to the North Pole.’
“I tear up when I think about not being able to play Santa,” remarked Pershing, who was quick to note that he will don his red suit again next year. “I’ll play Santa until I’m not able to.
“I really missed the Breakfast With Jesus and Santa this year at Christ United Methodist Church. That’s always so nice. It puts me in the Christmas spirit because they have a live Nativity scene.
Pershing recalls playing Santa in the mid-1980s, when a little girl hopped up on his lap but wouldn’t tell him what she wanted. “She just sat there. I prodded and pushed her to say something. I said, ‘I can’t bring you anything unless you tell me what you want.’
“And she said, ‘Anything?’
“I knew I was in trouble then ... ‘I can try ... I’ll do my best.’ ”
“Can I have my mommy back?” she asked. “She’s with the angels.”
“That will be pretty hard to do,” I responded. “I doubt I can do that.” By then I was crying inside. “How about if I get you a picture of your mommy to hang on your wall so you can say your prayers in front of her every night?”
It turned out that he knew the girl’s dad through coaching bantam football, and Pershing had one of his helpers tell her dad what he had said.
The girl’s father got a picture and called Pershing to see if he would deliver it on Christmas Eve. “She was in total awe when she saw me walk through the front door; she was thrilled. We hung the picture that night. I also brought some presents for her brother because I didn't want him to feel left out.”
Pershing also remembers a Christmas when a family signed up too late for the Clothe-a-Child program. “I heard about the situation, so I got in touch with some of my buddies and the Jaycees, and we went shopping. We took the presents to the family on Christmas Eve.”
There’s one family that he visits after midnight Mass. “The parents leave the gifts outside, and I put them in my bag before going in the house. One year I could see the children were trying to videotape me, but I didn't let on that I saw them.” He just put the gifts under the tree before having a cookie and a little milk.
Pershing and his buddies have been known to take complete Christmas dinners and gifts to families down on their luck. “We showed up unannounced once, and the kids saw me through the window. You could hear the pitter-patter of little feet running down the hallway and children screaming, ‘Santa Claus is here!’ ”
One of the families that Pershing plays Santa for thinks so much of him that they invite him to their summer outings.
He has been paid for being Santa, but he doesn’t charge people. Whenever he is compensated, the money is used to buy gifts for needy families.
Before Father Time graced him with a white head of hair, eyelashes and eyebrows and a matching beard, he used dye to get the desired effect. “I’m probably the only man who wanted his hair to turn white. I didn’t like wearing a wig and a beard,” Pershing said. “I get three haircuts a year, including a nice trim before Christmas.”
Once he let the older sisters of the boys on his football team handle the coloring chores. However, that resulted in a big mistake ... his hair turned out bright orange. “The girls said they didn’t know what they did wrong,” he laughed.
“I had to go around like that for a week. They called me ‘Gorgeous George’ (the wrestler) at work.” After a few treatments the color was toned down to a bluish-gray, which Pershing said he thought was kind of neat.
An Air Force veteran who retired from Allisons, Pershing coached Greenwood bantam football for 27 years and served as an assistant coach in the Women’s Football Alliance (full contact) for six years and led the Indy Crash to the final four. He and his wife, Karan, will celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary on Valentine’s Day. Their other daughter is Amanda Crawshaw, whose other child is Clayton.
“I love that my dad is generous and loving enough to spread Christmas cheer to those he meets no matter what time of year it is,” said Anna Pershing. “When my son (Caje) asks why my dad doesn’t live at the North Pole and why there are other Santas out there, I tell him, ‘Santa chooses warm, compassionate men who hold the spirit of Christmas in their heart, and he bestows on them the gift of being Santa’s helper. These men have a special connection with Santa, and they will forever have the gift of Christmas magic in them to share with others.’
“My dad has made Santa so real in our lives, so much a part of our lives that when my school kids ask if I believe in Santa, I can honestly tell them I do, and that I know him personally.”
Mr. Pershing was known by many as Santa at Allison, and that’s what his name tag said. On the day before plant shutdown at Christmastime, he would don his suit and ride around in a cart handing out candy to all the employees. “A couple of the girls would get dressed up and act like they were my elves,” laughed Pershing.
While making a Santa run in the late 1990s, he was pulled over for speeding. “The officer walked up to my car, looked at me and said, ‘Never mind.’ He turned around, walked back to his car and left.”