All his life Eric Schmitt-Matzen has been told one thing. “You look like Santa Claus!” And a 6-feet tall and 310 pounds, his jolly belly “leaves just enough of a lap for kids to sit on.” He doesn’t need fake facial hair, his beard and mustache are 100% homegrown (though bleached regularly to maintain its whiteness). His beard is so perfect, he won first place in the “natural full beard, styled moustashe” division of a 2016 national contest sponsored by the Just For Men hair products company. Plus, he has a Chris Cringle chuckle straight out of Central Casting.
Because he looks the part so well, he gets 80 gigs every year to be Santa Claus. Was born on December 6, which happens to be Saint Nicholas Day. And his costumes are tailored in red. Not to mention, but his wife Sharon plays an equally authentic Mrs. Claus. He lives to spread love and joy.
But sometimes the joyful moments are enough to make his heart exploded…
Several weeks ago, he went to a local Tennessee hospital to visit sick and dying children. Not even his cellphone’s Jingle Bells ringtone could bring a smile to his face after that. Because at that hospital, one of the children died in his arms…
“I cried all the way home,” Schmitt-Matzen told me. “I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive.
“My wife and I were scheduled to visit our grandchildren in Nashville the next day, but I told her to go by herself. I was a basket case for three days. It took me a week or two to stop thinking about it all the time. Actually, I thought I might crack up and never be able to play the part again.”
The terminally ill child got his final wish, but it broke Santa’s heart. He can’t believe a child died in his arms.
“I’d just gotten home from work that day,” recalled Schmitt-Matzen, 60, a mechanical engineer and president of Packing Seals & Engineering in Jacksboro.
“The telephone rang. It was a nurse I know who works at the hospital. She said there was a very sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus.
“I told her, ‘OK, just let me change into my outfit.’ She said, ‘There isn’t time for that. Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now.’”
Santa got to the hospital in 15 minutes. He met the boy and his mother.
“She’d bought a toy from (the TV show) PAW Patrol and wanted me to give it to him,” he said. “I sized up the situation and told everyone, ‘If you think you’re going to lose it, please leave the room. If I see you crying, I’ll break down and can’t do my job.’”
From the hallway, the boy’s family sobbed.
“When I walked in, he was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep. I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my Number One elf!
“He looked up and said, ‘I am?’
“I said, ‘Sure!
“I gave him the present. He was so weak he could barely open the wrapping paper. When he saw what was inside, he flashed a big smile and laid his head back down.”
‘“They say I’m gonna die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’
“I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’
“He said, ‘Sure!’
“When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.
“He said, ‘They will?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’
“I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him.
“Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could.
“I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I’ve seen my share of (stuff). But I ran by the nurses’ station bawling my head off. I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it.’”
Santa ran from the pain. “I’m just not cut out for this,” he reasoned.
But then he found everything he had to do one more show.
“When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold. It made me realize the role I have to play. For them and for me.”
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