Albion 7th-graders complete book about Charles Howard and his famous Santa School
Photos by Tom Rivers
ALBION – Maddison Button, a seventh grade student at Albion, is dressed in an outfit from Santa Claus Suit & Equipment Company, which was one of the enterprises run by the late Charles Howard. He also ran a Santa Claus School in Albion from 1937 to 1966, and opened Christmas Park at Albion.
Maddison and her classmates in Tim Archer’s service learning class put together a 44-page book about Howard’s life. The book and artifacts from the Santa School and Christmas Park were featured in a program on Friday at Hoag Library.
The first 100 copies quickly sold out at $5 and another printing is expected.
Howard’s Santa suits were known nationwide for their high quality and unique features. Elizabeth Babcock of Albion eventually took over the suit business.
“The vivid scarlet red suits were made of the finest wool,” Maddison said. “They were trimmed with French white rabbit fur, and included an eight-point buckle and a hair and beard set of Tibetan yak hair.”
Eight students spoke about Howard’s life during Friday’s presentation, which also included comments from past employees at Christmas Park, Howard’s grandchildren Jane Holland and Charles Bergeman, and a Santa School graduate.
Lorelei Gailie, a seventh-grader, shared how Howard started building toys and doll furniture at age 7 with a coping saw he received from an aunt.
He then created sets and designed costumes for local productions. He wrote, produced and directed plays, and acted and sang in them.
He graduated from Albion High School in 1916. Two years later, after his father’s death, Howard bought a 400-acre farm at the corner of Phipps Road and Gaines Basin Road.
Nicholas Luft told a crowd of about 75 people how Howard was a church-going and civic-minded man. He attended the local United Methodist Church and was a charter member of the Albion Lions Club. He was active in the Orleans County Farm and Home Bureau, Orleans County 4-H and built displays and floats at the State Fair.
Olivia Andrews then shared how Howard portrayed Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from 1948 through 1965, which put him in the national spotlight.
Ava Woolston highlighted the Santa Claus School which Howard started in 1937 at age 41. People thought Howard was crazy to start such a school, and it got off to a slow start with only three students the first year, including a neighbor and a close friend. Only one paid the $15 tuition, a welder named Frederick Wise.
The school brochure advertised its purpose: “dedicated to the training and equipping of men to play the important role of Santa Claus.” Howard’s goal was to produce a “ruddy cheeked, ample-bellied” Santa that was “clean, jolly and considerate.”
Brooke Doty shared Howard shut down the family farm and established Christmas Park, which opened on Sept. 22, 1956. Tens of thousands visited it annually to enjoy games and rides and visit with Santa. “A hallmark of the park was a mighty stone fireplace, wth a permanent evergreen wreath hanging above it,” she said. “The fireplace still remains – the last vestige of the Park.”
Adam Burgio highlighted famous quotes from Charles Howard including:
“He errs who thinks Santa enter through the chimney. He enters through the heart.”
“To be Santa Claus is a privilege, not a job.”
“Santa should be lively and quick, not slow and dumpy.”
“Santa is not just toys, not just tinsel. He stands for love.”
“It’s so real to me sometimes that I can feel the reindeer breathing on my cheek.”
Grace Nesbitt shared Howard’s goodbye. He died at age 69 on May 1, 1966 in Newfane. Albion businesses closed down for his funeral between 2:45 and 3:45 p.m. at the request of Mayor William Monacelli.
Congressman William Fitts Ryan addressed the U.S. Congress sin Washington, DC that day, saying, “Mr. Speaker, I know of no one who brought more joy to the hearts of children of America, than our nation’s No. 1 Santa Claus.”
Charles Howard’s grandchildren thanked the community for its continued interest in their grandfather. Charles Bergeman of Lewiston, left, said his grandfather “dedicated his life to bringing joy to others.”
Jane Holland of Williamsville said Howard was a devoted family man who left a large impact on the Albion community and beyond.
“We appreciate all of your interest in keeping his memory alive,” she said.
Holland said she grew up visiting a man who took pride in being a grandpa. He was humble and delighted in designing and building the extravagant sets for Christmas Park while not having indoor plumbing in his own home. He kept a three-seat outhouse instead.
Tim Archer, teacher of the class, said the students admire the man who developed the Santa School which continues in Howard’s name in Midland, Mich.
“He was without a doubt an ambassador of goodwill,” Archer said.
Archer said the community should feel proud of Howard, whose school was world famous and featured in Life magazine and other national publications as “The Harvard of Santa Claus Schools.”
Archer noted signs went up on Route 31 in Albion last year declaring that section of the road the Charles W. Howard Memorial Highway.
And Archer commended the Albion Betterment Committee for working to have a bronze statue of Santa Claus in downtown Albion in honor of Howard.
Tim Archer goes through photos about Howard, including this one in the 1961 Life magazine about the Santa Claus School. That article on the school raised Howard’s profile nationwide.
Jack Miles, a retired Albion highway superintendent, worked at Christmas Park as a teen-ager. He said Howard would often waive the 25-cent admission fee for families with many children. He also tended to let kids go on rides if they didn’t meet the height requirement.
Miles also shared how Howard let him be on the float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which remains a thrill and unforgettable moment for Miles more than a half century later.
Ken McPherson of Medina displays artifacts from the Santa School and Christmas Park, including a Santa suit. McPherson, in back speaking, has graduated from the Santa School several times. He said he is proud to have “a bachelor’s degree in Santa Claus.”
McPherson said Albion remains a special place for those who portray Santa Claus because of Howard and the school.
“Albion has bragging rights,” McPherson said. “It should be kept in the limelight.”