Every Christmas, our Fraternal Order of Police post would hold a Christmas party on the Saturday the week before Christmas. It was for the children of our officers. The highlight, even more than the gifts, was the appearance of Santa Claus. Since we could never get the actual Santa to show up, we went with the next best thing. Sgt. Russ Reiterman. He was from the police department just north of ours.
If there ever was anyone made to be Santa Claus, it was Russ. He was a larger-than-life character. A booming voice you could hear a mile away, heavier than he should be, although perfect for Santa. A great laugh and a heart of gold. I used to think of him as a “Big teddy-bear.” He had a reputation as an excellent officer. I witnessed that firsthand when we worked auto theft together for two years. Russ was in charge of the county auto theft unit.
I worked our dayshift patrol. Just as I was about to call out for lunch, dispatch asked that I return to the station. I parked in front of the station. As I got out of my car, I saw Santa Russ in his full suit waving at me from behind the double glass doors. As I opened the door and walked inside. Santa grabbed me around my waist and lifted me off the ground.
“Richard, how’s my favorite sergeant?”
“Set me down and I will tell you.”
I should mention I am six feet tall and back then weighed one hundred ninety pounds. So not exactly small or lightweight. That’s how strong he was.
My boss was on the desk laughing his butt off. When he stopped laughing, he said,
“Hey Richard. How would you like to drive this guy around town and then drop him off at the Christmas party?”
“Yep, the Chief was up here when Russ mentioned it to him. He loved the idea. You should feel honored. Russ specifically asked for you.”
Russ wrapped his arm around me. “We will have a good time.”
“How could I say no? Let me rephrase that. I couldn’t say no. That’s what the Chief wanted.”
I looked at the LT and Russ. “I am ready.”
Lt. Burtwell said, “Not so fast, Richard. The chief asked me to give this to you and tell you he wants it worn at all times while with Santa Russ.”
He handed me a green and red elf hat. People might think I was embarrassed and did not want to wear an elf hat. Just the opposite. I knew I was going to have fun with Russ. The hat just added a bit more fun.
“Excuse me, my assistant elf. As soon as you get your uniform elf hat on, I could use a little help. Santa will need a hand loading, a few things into your car.” Russ pointed to a cart with ten boxes and a huge red bag on it.
So, there was Santa and his assistant elf rolling the cart down the ramp in front of the station and to my car. I knew it was going to be a fun day. The city library was across from the police station. Looked like they had some type of children’s reading program that day. Car after car pulled into the parking lot.
“Alright, my assistant elf, let’s go wish the little ones a Merry Christmas.”
Santa told me to bring a box. I opened the ten-pound box to get ready and inside was a large clear bad filled with little chocolate Santas. As we were walking up, every little kid came running towards us with parents right behind. All you could hear was the roar of “Santa.” It did not take long to be surrounded by happy kids. I passed out the candy and watched Santa Russ work his magic with the kids. After making sure every child received some candy. Santa Russ shouted in his best Santa voice----
“Merry Christmas. Now all of you go with your parents to the library.”
As quickly as they came, they were gone.
Walking back to my car. I looked over at Russ.
“I have known you for almost fifteen years. You were there when my kids were little. But I never knew what it was like watching you outside of the yearly kids’ Christmas party. I loved looking at those smiling faces. Their eyes were wide open, so amazed to see Santa Claus in the parking lot of the city library. I see why you have been playing Santa for a long time.”
“Richard, I will play Santa until the day I die. This is my chance to give thanks for the life I was given.”
“Cut it out Russ, you are one of the most giving people I know. Speaking of giving, who paid for the candy?”.
“Oh, Jackson Ford donated all of it.”
“Nice. That had to cost a lot?”
'"I am sure it did?"
I found out a couple of years later Russ purchased the candy every year.
Santa looked over at me. “Well sergeant elf, fire up my sleigh.”
“Yes, Santa Russ.”
For the next two hours, Santa and his elf stopped anywhere we saw kids. Shopping centers, neighborhoods, apartments, restaurant row. At each place, those little trolls attacked us.
As we pulled out of a McDonald’s parking lot. I gave Santa Russ some bad news. We were almost out of candy and your scheduled appearance for the kids’ party is forty-five minutes from now.”
“Alright, there must be a place near the hall?”
“There is a small non-denominational church only one block south of our hall. Usually on Saturday afternoon they have a children’s bible class and in the church choir practice. Most of their members are poor.”
“Richard, that sounds good. Let’s do it.”
As we were driving, Russ had me in stitches. Reminding me of the first time we met. The short version goes this way. Brand new police cadet, first night on the job, takes a call for an Officer Reiterman. He grabs the phone, talks, slams the phone down, grabs a pen, writes his last name in huge letters, circles it several times, spells his name to me. Then looks right at me. “Now do you know who Officer Reiterman is?”. Now and then, when we saw each other, Russ would bring it up.
After we pulled into the church’s parking lot, I pulled into a parking space so we could refill Santa’s bag.
My face hurt from smiling so much and my ribs hurt from Russ, getting me to laugh so hard.
When we walked in, I spotted Dr. Price. I had met him when I was working midnights. He was working late one night, so I stopped in to make sure everything was alright. I explained what we were doing.
“Sgt. Frohm and Santa, these kids are poor. Most of them will get nothing for Christmas. Seeing Santa Claus and getting candy will mean the world to them.”
Russ asked how many children were there?
“Twelve, four boys and eight girls, we are a tiny church.”
Russ motioned for me to follow him outside.
“Look, I have an idea. There are sixty-three kids that will be at our party. Collier, Hamel, and Bob Smith bought two gifts for each child. Here, look at the list. We have fourteen over age thirteen. Here’s my thought. These twelve little ones really need the gifts.”
“I see where you are going on this, and I think it is a great idea, Santa. We will have to go over and tell them about your idea.”
I ran back in and told Dr. Price what Russ had come up with and that we would be back just as soon as we could.
We hurried over to the hall. Thankfully, Smitty, Hamel and Collier were there. Russ told them what he wanted to do. All three thought it was a great idea. So, they went through and selected two gifts for each child.
Rose Lane, the wife of Lt. Gene Lane, came over and asked Russ what was up? When he explained about the toys. Rose called all the wives together. After huddling for a few minutes, Rose came back and told Russ and me. To go back and have everyone from the church join them.
Rose said, “We have more than enough food and sodas. Christmas is about giving. I am positive they will be thrilled to join us.”
I gave Rose a hug. “Rose, you are the best.” Rose and her husband, Gene, were simply the nicest people you could know.
I drove back and told Dr. Price what we wanted to do. I thought he was going to breakout in tears.
“Sgt. Frohm, you will never know how much what all of you are doing will mean to not only our children, but their parents.”
“Well, I am heading back, officially the party starts at four o’clock. It’s 3:30pm now. How about everyone start over about 3:45pm?”
Soon as I walked inside, Al Collier met me.
“Richard, everything is ready. This was a great idea.”
“We can all thank Russ. Looks like Santa came through big time this year.”
As the police families started coming in, one of us would let them know about the families that had joined us. Everyone thought it was a fantastic idea. In fact, our families all made sure the church families felt welcome.
My shift officially ended at 4: 00 pm. I called the front desk and caught my shift lieutenant before he left. I asked if it was alright if I could stay at the Christmas party and then bring my patrol car in.
“No problem, I will see you tomorrow.”
“Then I called Denise and told her what was going on and if she could come down and bring the boys. They could help serve food.
That Christmas party, thanks to Santa Russ, would go down as the best ever.
I stood there for a while watching Russ as he made the rounds, talking to each child and the parents. Santa Russ was in his element. I stood back and watched Russ and thought, he may not be the actual Santa, but he is as close as anyone can get.
I knew Russ was getting tired, but he stayed until the last family left. I saw him sitting at a table by himself. So, I walked over and sat next to him.
“Quite a day. You must be exhausted?”
“Richard, I am, but this is a good exhausted. I live for Christmas. Those kids help keep me young. I have a question for you. Will you be my driver next year and as long as we can?”
“Why Santa, it would be my honor to be your sleigh driver.”
We both stood up and hugged.
“Richard, could you give me a drive home? You have my sleigh.”
I would be Santa’s driver for next nine years.
On July 16, 2010, my brother officer, my friend of thirty-seven years, Sgt. Russ Reiterman, passed away. On that day, we not only lost a husband, father, friend, brother in blue, but one of the finest men to ever wear a badge.