Steeltown Santa Claus

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The Beach Strip
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Jimmy Lomax is the face of Christmas in Hamilton. But he's no storybook hero. Hardship and tragedy have marked his life. Health problems. The death of his only child. 'Christmas is sad for us. but we just have to go on, making it happy for everyone else.'
By Brent Lawson
The Hamilton Spectator(Dec 22, 2006)
The cold wind whips through the parking lot at the Mount Albion Road school, ruffling the scarves of the children.

Out the back door steps Jimmy Lomax, Hamilton's honorary Santa Claus, his trademark suit resplendent against the drab winter backdrop of the parking lot.

Gingerly, he makes his way down the stairs towards the Operation Santa Claus van.

His knees hurt. His back aches. Pulling himself up into the van is a struggle.

But there are still children watching, so Lomax won't let them see the pain.

After all, when you represent the universal messenger for good cheer and glad tidings, it just won't do to be a sad St. Nick.

Lomax has brought Christmas to Hamilton for 48 consecutive years, following through on inspiration he had as a small boy in poor health.

Now 63, Lomax still has health concerns.

But few Hamilton residents see the man behind the Santa suit. Or know that while Lomax brings the joy of the season to thousands of area residents, Christmas is a bittersweet, emotional time for him.


Photo-
Sheryl Nadler, the Hamilton Spectator
Jimmy Lomax prepares for his annual Christmas gig as Santa Claus with sister-in-law Carol Lomax. His Operation Santa delivers toys to sick and needy area children.
 

scotto

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The man behind the suit

Thanks Squirt, I missed that one
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Posted with full permission from the Hamilton Spectator.



For 48 years, Jimmy Lomax has dressed up as Santa to lift spirits of both young and old. It's been a long, wonderful journey. But pain blankets the heart of the man who spreads happiness. And he wonders who will carry on.
By Brent Lawson
The Hamilton Spectator(Dec 22, 2006)
Once upon a time there was a little boy, on a Christmas past long ago but not so far away.

His parents are told their son has only three years to live. Afflicted with a lung disorder, he has trouble drawing breaths. He is seven years old, bed-ridden and afraid.

The boy has shuffled back and forth between hospitals in Hamilton and Toronto. Finally, his parents decide that his own home is where he should be, whatever happens.

Then, on Christmas Eve, he hears a booming voice, and a man in a red suit blusters into his bedroom. The boy has survived to meet Santa Claus, and it changes his life, just like the characters in a make-believe fantasyland.

But this is real life. The visit coincides with a welcome reversal in fortune, an answer to a prayer.

Where there was fear, there is now hope. Perhaps the light of Christmas?

The boy begins to breathe again, to regain his health.

This magical transformation is as real as a child's anticipation on Christmas morning, and a dream begins to take shape for Hamilton's Jimmy Lomax.

He now has a mission, a direction. In return for his new chance at life, he will take on the role of Santa Claus and take the gift of hope that he has received to others, like a blessing.

At the tender age of 15, while his contemporaries are preoccupied with the amusements of the young, Lomax embarks on the journey that will define his life. With a $5 bag of candy, a Santa suit and a smile, he visits the hospital to offer wishes to sick children. He hasn't stopped since.

This season marks 48 consecutive years for Lomax's Christmas crusade, a marathon by any measure. In fact, it's hard to imagine anything else that can even come close in this time of disposable culture.

It has taken its toll. Lomax has survived three heart attacks and faces other health issues. And when he finally draws back from his mission, as he knows he must one day, it will mark the end of an era for the community.

Since his only child, Ryan, died of cancer in the spring of 1987 -- at age 15 -- there is no Santa Jr. waiting in the wings to carry on the remarkable tradition.

For Susan and Jimmy Lomax, who offer cheer to so many at Christmas, the season will always be shaded by the death of their son, whose birthday was Dec. 17.

"When we are out making people happy, a lot of times we are not that happy ourselves, especially when it comes to children. We think of our own boy, Ryan, and what he would look like, and our grandchildren ...

"Christmas is sad for us. But we just have to go on, making it happy for everyone else."

When Lomax started his charitable odyssey in 1958, the Avro Arrow was flying and Lloyd D. Jackson was mayor of Hamilton. You could buy a nice house for $20,000, and gas was 24 cents a gallon.

In those early years, visits to children were squeezed around Lomax's full-time job inside the gates of Stelco. But moonlighting took on an ever-increasing role as Operation Santa expanded through the years. His marriage to Susan as a young man only solidified the commitment, as she embraced the busy and supportive background role one might associate with a Mrs. Claus.

Lomax retired from Stelco four years ago, and with attention now solely on his dream, Operation Santa currently provides more than $200,000 in gifts and cheer for about 80,000 people a year. The needy. The lonely. Families and seniors. Hospital patients and just about anyone who needs a Santa fix.

The funds come from corporate donations, factory workers and several anonymous donors -- many of whom had a brighter Christmas when they were children because of the Lomaxes.

A mammoth garage sale stretching 4.5 kilometres along the Beach Strip each summer also raises funds for the cause.

The scope of Operation Santa Claus is extraordinary, considering its shoestring budget. Each year Jimmy and Susan Lomax also contribute cash to ensure that all those who need help will get something.

Each and every helper is unpaid (not even mileage or expenses) and Lomax says the program would fall to pieces without their dozen or so elves.

"We couldn't do this without our volunteers because Susan and I both aren't well. We wouldn't be able to do it if we didn't have drivers and helpers for Santa, helping do everything. They are our right-hand men and ladies."

Now 63, Hamilton's honorary Santa and boss and inspirational leader of Operation Santa Claus has a sackful of scrapbooks (23 at last count).

The newspaper clippings recount the accolades, many medals, citations and awards. And his Order of Canada from 1983, which he was prepared to turn down because officials told him he could take only one guest. He wanted to have his son Ryan on hand as well as his wife. The officials relented, broke precedent, and Ryan was able to watch his father receive the honour.

It has been a mammoth endeavour to build Operation Santa Claus into a positive force in the community, a seasonal certainty as welcome as a light dusting of snow on Christmas Eve.

But it hasn't always been smooth sailing for this Beach Strip fixture.

Like a character from Dickens visited by emissaries from the past, Lomax has his own regrets and challenges. A true Steeltown Santa, Lomax has faced his troubles head on:

* In 1984, Lomax saw the writing on the wall after heart attacks landed him in hospital, and he determined it was time to lose weight. But far from being only a personal goal, his efforts to slim down became a fundraising effort for his charity. His battles with the bulge rose again, and in 2005 he successfully lost 100 pounds.

* Distraught over the death of his son, Lomax sank into depression. In 1988, he was charged with impaired driving after hitting another car. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail. But far from hiding, Lomax stepped up and expressed his regret ("I screwed up") and his hopes -- that his mistake wouldn't harm support for Operation Santa Claus. For the most part, the community rallied around one of its favourite sons.

* The death of Ryan due to cancer shook the family foundations. "Some people split up. We went through trials and tribulations." One day a counsellor came to their house to talk to the couple. When Lomax found out the counsellor had never experienced the loss of a child, he asked him to leave. "All you're talking about is what you read in your little book. We don't need that. We'll deal with it ourselves.

"And that's what we did do. It wasn't easy ... it's still there."

* Operation Santa Claus has been a magnificent success and provides cheer to tens of thousands. But Lomax had hoped it could have been even more grand. "I hoped it would expand even more, where there would be a place for Santa. And the people could come to us, like a Santa's castle or something. We wouldn't have to do this running around ...

"But the money never got there. It was going out faster than it was coming in."

On Easter, the year after Ryan died, Lomax dropped to his knees in the middle of a store. The couple was buying Easter eggs for the neighbourhood children. "I said, 'Do you realize we'd be buying things for Ryan instead of for everybody else right now?' It didn't hit us at Christmas, we were so busy."

Emotions are always close to the surface for Lomax. This makes it especially difficult when he visits children at McMaster hospital, where his son died.

"It's hard for me when I get there, but I can't let the kids see that I'm upset.

"Those kids have a lot of medical problems, and you don't want to upset them any further, or their parents."

"I daren't mention that my son was there ... you want to give the parents all the hope there is because that helps, having hope and thinking positively."

Preparing for Christmas consumes all the Lomaxes' time and energy 364 days a year. (Christmas Day is a quiet event in their modest Beach Strip home. A lodging home provides Susan and Jimmy Christmas dinner.)

The bustle holds back some of the pain. Lomax hoped his son would carry on in his father's footsteps. Ryan died at 15, the same age that his father took on the role.

"The first Christmas, Sheila Copps was the only one who came down and spent Christmas Day with us. She knew what it was like. She knew that we were hurting." Copps had visited Ryan in hospital and gave his parents a much needed respite.
 

scotto

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The man behind the suit continued
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Copps calls Lomax's 48 years of unpaid service to the community unbelievable. "To me, he represents the best of volunteerism because it's all about the kids. He has devoted his life to it.

"His commitment has never waned. He's always been there. People like Jimmy inspire others."

Lomax finds his own inspiration in the persona of Santa. He is classic in his manner -- the white beard, booming, friendly voice and slow, friendly wave -- and instinctive in his relationships with children.

Years ago,Lomax recalled being Santa for the first time: "It was beautiful. It was magic. It's like having a dual personality. Sometimes I think I am Santa."

Lomax sacrificed every day of vacation year after year to work on Operation Santa Claus. In 1981, a grateful group of 28 businesspeople in the community rewarded his family with a one-week, all-expenses-paid holiday to Orlando, Fla.

True to his nature, he used much of his spending money to help needy children in the sunshine state. "You really are Santa Claus," his driver told him.

After nearly a half-century of lifting children, lugging presents and carrying Christmas on his shoulders, Lomax admits he is slowing down.

Lomax lives and breathes Hamilton, as much a part of the fabric of the city as Stelco, where he worked for 38 years.

Just like the faltering steelmaker, Lomax knows that change is in the air and the future is uncertain.

But every storybook must have an ending. Even the dream that came true called Operation Santa Claus.

"There's nobody that will take it over, really. Nobody is going to give up all their time and energy, money...

"Part of it is, we just don't know what else to do. And if ever it came to the point that I couldn't do it, I don't know know ... they would have to tie me up."

Even after all these years, inside Lomax still is that seven-year-old boy who drew strength and happiness from Santa, and the need to carry that spirit to others.

"There are so many people who depend on us."

blawson@thespec.com 905-526-2463

With files from Shelley Quatrale, special to The Hamilton Spectator

On Santa: "There are lots of Santas out there in the guise of the coaches who get up for hockey at 5 o'clock in the morning, little league baseball and football coaches. They're all volunteers. They're doing a good job. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, all those other organizations tended by volunteers. They're all Santa Clauses." On Christmas: "People run off and charge up their credit cards, but that's not what Christmas is. What was really given to us was love, peace, goodwill. That's the heart of Christmas." To contribute to Operation Santa Claus, call 905-545-4349. Jimmy Lomax



Photos by Sheryl Nadler, the Hamilton Spectator
Susan Lomax helps husband, Jimmy, get ready to share the Christmas spirit with Hamiltonians, as he has done for 48 straight years.


Jimmy gives cheer to sick kids at McMaster. Above, Jeanette McGraw coaxes a smile from her son, Jacob, 1.


Photos Courtesy of Jimmy Lomax
Jimmy with his son Ryan at age two. Ryan died at 15.


The Santa who inspired young Jimmy, who was ill at home on Christmas Eve.
 
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