Hope In The Red Suit

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times
Matthew Martin, 15, coaxes Elvis the cockatiel onto his shoulder for a portrait with John Russell, “the Clearwater Santa,” at PetSmart at Largo Mall.

[DANIELLE PAQUETTE | TimesAlicia Hollis, 2, sits for a portrait with Santa at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg on Saturday.

[DANIELLE PAQUETTE | Times
Alicia Hollis, 2, sits for a portrait with Santa at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg on Saturday.

This Santa is growing his hope by sharing it. Almost twenty years ago, John Russell, 63 lost his smile and his right leg below the knee. John grew up playing football in rural Pennsylvania and he believed real men, even diabetic men like himself, should take pain without complaining. It began with months of aching and he just kept walking. Finally, a visit to the doctor revealed bad news. The bones in John’s right foot had begun to disappear due to a condition called Charot Foot. Severe damage was spreading up his shin. His leg had to be amputated.

Depression set in as he suddenly went from very active to not being able to walk at all. Rehab was humiliating and frustrating. Russell considered taking his own life and chose not to because he didn’t want to leave his wife and daughter alone. It took years to find a prostheic leg that worked. Slowly, he started leaving his home. One glorious December day three years ago, Russell went to the Westfield Countryside mall with his wife, Peggy, to shop for Christmas gifts. While she shopped he sat and watched the childrens faces light up as they sat on Santas lap.

“I felt at peace taking in that scene,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘The world is still beautiful.’ ” As he was leaving, Russell felt a gloved hand on his shoulder. “What are you doing in my territory?” the mall Santa asked him. “What do you mean?” Russell replied. “Aren’t you a Santa?” “No, sir.” “Well, you should be.” After that, everything changed. It was a sign, an epiphany.

Russell Googled “How to be a Santa” joined a three-day Santa school in Decatur, Ga., and booked his first gig. It’s a happy routine, Russell says: hugs, pictures, wishes. He keeps the scraps of paper kids give him: “Santa, please bring a puppy.” “I don’t know why the Lord lets an old man like me have this much fun,” he tells parents, chuckling.

During the holidays, Russell attends his monthly support group for amputees in Largo as Santa, posing for Christmas pictures. He regularly meets with a Gandy post office employee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident. Soon, he plans to visit a diabetic man who just lost his legs. Russell hopes to make them smile again. “I know what you’re feeling,” he tells them. “But never, ever give up.”

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