Santa Claus left the North Pole for a brief early trip to Brooklet Thursday, marking the 50th visit with familiar faces for this particular Santa in the small town south of his workshop.
Sitting on the front porch swing of a home on South Crumley Road, Santa welcomed little ones and some older ones, too, to share Christmas wishes and holiday memories.
Over the years when the toymaker was too busy to leave the workshop, 85-year-old Brooklet resident Fred Shaver described his role in the annual visit as an “assistant to the bearded man.”
“Santa’s kinda busy,” he said. “Sometimes, Santa needs help. He has helpers all over the place.”
Shaver moved to Brooklet in 1966 to launch the football program at Southeast Bulloch High School.
“They’d played a B-team schedule for a year and then I jumped into it full blast,” he said.
A graduate of Florence State College, now the University of North Alabama, Shaver taught math and coached for years at SEBHS and later coached and served as assistant principle. After coaching for 18 years and proudly winning state championships in 1972 and 1973, Shaver moved into administration as assistant superintendent and associate superintendent, working 17 years before retiring.
He is so well known in the Brooklet community and beyond that most people call him “Coach” rather than Fred. He also helped coach girls’ basketball.
“Like every educator, I wanted to be a good influence on the kids,” Shaver said.
Just three years after moving to Brooklet, someone gave him the familiar red suit.
“At first, Santa walked around Brooklet, talking to children, elderly couples, widows — those that would really appreciate the visit. And Santa usually ended up on John Frazier’s porch, sitting in the swing.”
After a couple of years of walking around the town, Brooklet resident Wayne Pruitt offered a pony and cart for Santa’s annual visit.
“We’ll decorate this cart and ride all over town, and that way you can get to more places,” Pruitt said he told Santa.
Next came friend Gary Morris’ decorated golf cart.
“Getting in and out of that golf cart was tough on Santa’s knees,” Shaver said, “and that’s how Santa wound up on John and Marjorie’s porch.”
Shaver said kids start lining up even before Santa arrives, anxious to climb on his knees and make their requests known.
“Some of the older ones, the ones who sat on Santa’s knees when they were really little, still want to sit on Santa’s lap, so I say, ‘Go ahead, Santa’s knee can handle it.’”
One returning family, the Collins family has been visiting with Santa for the past nine years, since moving back to Bulloch County, but it’s the first visit for little Ryan Collins. Pat and Sherri Collins have taken children Will, 23, Tyler, 21, John Daniel, 18, and Laura, 9, since Laura was a baby. This year, Will and his wife Mary-Anne brought 8-month-old Ryan for his first visit to Santa Claus.
Sherri Collins remembers when Santa used to drive the golf cart to their house in Brooklet and said they haven’t missed seeing Santa in nine years.
“I got in touch with Will about five times today to make sure he was coming with my grandson tonight,” she said about the visit.
When asked her favorite memories of the special night, Laura Collins said, “First you get to see Santa, and second, you get to be with friends and family.”
Then with a big grin, she added, “And you get candy.”
Shaver, who might have enjoyed just a little bit of the candy each year, said that when he was younger and was an active coach, he was slim and trim.
“I’ve had some of my friends insult me in recent years,” he quipped, “telling me that I no longer needed my pillow, that I could just go ‘natural.’”
Shaver said that Santa calls many of the kids by name and reminds them, “Santa used to come to your daddy’s house when he was a little boy.”
“Seeing the excitement on the kids’ faces, that makes all these years worth it,” he said. “I want to do something that makes others happy.”