And he’s not your typical mall Santa
Morgan M. Hurley | Downtown Editor
The official Balboa Park December Nights Santa will be the first to tell you that he isn’t your typical “mall” Santa. But once you meet him, that fact is obvious. Not only does he not need to hang a fake white beard over his ears, or stuff two pillows under his shirt, he finds ways to make children happy all year long and he is one of the jolliest fellows you will ever meet.
In fact, he exudes jolly.
Bill Swank wears a lot of hats besides the one recognized around the world as the cap of good old St. Nicholas, but being Santa Claus in Balboa Park three nights out of the year makes him happier than a child on Christmas morning.
“It’s the last thing I ever thought I’d do,” he said.
Over the years he’d been approached by people, other professional Santas and even companies, always asking him he he’d like to make some money by putting on that big red suit. He always turned them down. Then one year, he was filling up his plate at Hometown Buffet when he felt something around his leg.
He moved his tray and peered over his midsection. “It was a little Mexican girl, really tiny, and she had both arms wrapped around my leg and she said, ‘I love you Santa,’” he said. “I patted her on the head and said, ‘I love you, too, honey.’”
A year later when he was approached by two women at a friend’s house about working as Santa for the Community Christmas Center, the organization that runs December Nights, he remembered that little girl. “It’s one thing for adults to tell you to be Santa,” he said. “But when a kid sees you and they have that reaction, it’s meant to be.”
Eleven years later, this retired probation officer is still having a blast.
“It’s interacting with the kids and their families,” he said, standing in the middle of the Balboa Park Organ Pavilion. He seemed to get a little choked up over this revelation. “I’ve never had my beard pulled. Little babies put their fingers in it, but that’s not intentional.”
His annual gig starts with his lighting of the huge Christmas Tree at the Organ Pavilion, this year on Saturday, Dec. 1, from 5:30 – 6 p.m.
He sits with kids for a short while after lighting the tree, but it is the following weekend, Friday, Dec. 7 from and Saturday, Dec. 8 where he really puts the hours in, and he looks forward to every minute.
His perch is located at the eastern vestibule of the Organ Pavilion and last year he made his grand entrance by way of a historical SDPD 1930s paddy wagon with detectives hoisting “tommy” guns.
“I’m not a mall Santa,” Swank said. “I’m not sure how they work [today], but when I would take my kids to the malls when they were kids, there wasn’t too much interaction. I don’t want to disparage other Santas, but I talk with the kids and I make a point of talking with every kid. I try to have fun with them and laugh. The lines move slow but I think the people enjoy [it].”
And they do. The lines to sit on his lap wrap all the way around the pavilion, and many kids come back year after year.
“I didn’t have any Santa training,” he said. “I knew that kids would be shy and some would be afraid of Santa. If I’m told that, I back off, but otherwise, I have fun and I’m a loud Santa.”
Swank said each year he’ll pick a couple of shy ones out of the crowd, point to them and say, “Hey, there you are! You came! I’ve been waiting for you!” Having that big jolly old fellow offering attention in their direction generally brings those kids out of their shell and he said he can see it on their faces.
The excitement in his own voice as he tells his stories make it clear he loves his job. “I have a lot of fun,” he said.
It’s hard to believe, but he said there is an even more rewarding job he performs as Santa; it’s not at Balboa Park and it’s much more personal. For the last several years he has been one of the Santa Clauses for San Diego Hospice, spending his time in the homes of terminally ill children throughout the county during the holidays. It is a challenging job but he sees the joy he brings these families.
He got the idea three years ago from a U-T San Diego reporter who had done several stories on their program. “I went through their training and I didn’t know if I could handle it or not,” he said. “It’s not easy dealing with sick, dying little kids.
“The first year I did it, a mother told me, ‘this is the best Christmas we’ve ever had.’” He explained that the woman had twins; one was dying of cancer and his visit healed their family in so many ways. He’s been doing it ever since.
“There are kids that I go see and they cheer me up they are so upbeat,” he said. “I just go into these homes and be jolly and they love it. It’s been very rewarding and I know its meant a lot to these families and I never thought it would.”
Last month the “Friends of Balboa Park” gave him an Inspiration Award at their annual luncheon.
“I didn’t even know they handed out awards,” he said. “I think Balboa Park is such a treasure, we’re so lucky we have it in San Diego. It was a great honor.”
Swank’s other hats include his longstanding position as the local baseball historian and his heavy involvement with Balboa Park’s Hall of Champions. Once every couple of months he also gets all the retired, professional old-timers in the area together for lunch so they can talk shop.
In 1997 he personally completed construction of a 1/128 scale model of Lane Field, the official field of the Padres Pacific Coast League from 1936 – 57, that is currently housed and on display in the Hall’s baseball section. He was also instrumental in the making of the recent film “The First Padres,” based on the same team. That documentary debuted on KPBS in October.
For years he was the Baseball Santa on the House of David baseball team. They were a team that travelled the country much like the Harlem Globetrotters, performing as they played. He is currently working on another project, the “Eisenhower Baseball Controversy” – regarding whether or not President Eisenhower played pro baseball before attending West Point – which Swank is currently pitching to the National Archives.
He also takes used Little League equipment from all over the county down to Mexico, to “spread the love of baseball.”
He is one busy guy. One thing is for certain, he’ll continue being the Balboa Park Santa for a long time. “Being Santa is like being appointed to the Supreme Court,” he said.
“Kurt Vonnegut was right,” Swank said.”Be careful what you pretend to be, because you are what you pretend to be.”
This December Night’s Santa is as close to a real Santa as San Diego is going to get.
For more information on December Nights, visit balboapark.org/decembernights.