There was only one real Santa Claus. He used the pseudonym Phil Steigerwald, but we all knew he was the only Kris Kringle. He had the roundest, kindest face you’ve ever seen, and welcomed you to his red-covered chair in the middle of Wolf and Dessauer’s Department Store in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His beard was long and fluffy, and his Santa suit felt like lamb’s wool.
We knew him well because every day after school we rushed home to watch him on WKJG, Channel 33. With his assistant Wee Willie Wand, Santa greeted children of northeastern Indiana and northwestern Ohio for thirty minutes on live television. How exciting to spot schoolmates on the television show!
For weeks my brother and I anticipated the visit. Wolf and Dessauer’s was an elegant, old-style department store. In addition to Santa’s North Pole, downtown Fort Wayne became an otherworldly place during the holiday season. A large, lighted Christmas tree towered above Calhoun Street on a platform near GC Murphy’s.
W and Ds store featured magical, animated Christmas windows around the perimeter. In 1964, I was still seven years away from seeing Disneyland. The windows were worth the wait in line in Fort Wayne’s usually cold December. Mom dressed us in our red rubber pull-over boots and plaid coats to stand in the cold.
The centerpiece of the W and D outside decorations was a large, lighted Santa and his reindeer hung on the face of the building. In December 1982 when my husband and I had our first date, we drove to Fort Wayne to see this holiday icon, which was now displayed at the Fort Wayne National Bank. We walked around, looking at the holiday lights, as snow fell around us.
Seeing Santa was wonderful, and we always had a list of wanted toys to share. Unlike my brother who was terrified of the Jolly Old Elf, I engaged the fat man in conversation until Wee Willie Wand needed to drag me off his lap. Santa managed to find his way every year to our home, despite lack of a fireplace.
Several years later on a hot summer day, my neighbor Betty Lou Saffer told me there was no Santa Claus. She had three older siblings, so apparently, the word got out. I’m still upset about it.