Bronze statue of Santa unveiled in Albion today after Strawberry Fest parade

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 10 June 2023 at 7:32 pm

Statue honors legacy of Charles W. Howard who ran Santa School and Christmas Park in Albion

Photo by Tom Rivers

ALBION – A bronze statue was unveiled today at about noon honoring Charles W. Howard, who ran a Santa School in Albion from 1937 until 1966.

Leaders of the Albion Betterment Committee – Gary Kent, Gary Derwick (behind Kent) and Joe Gehl – are joined by three Santas in celebrating the unveiling of the statue.

When the covering was removed from the statue, confetti was shot into the air.

The Betterment Committee worked on the project for eight years, raising about $80,000 from the local community without any grants or state funding.

Mary Ida Doan, center, takes a close look at the statue depicting Charles W. Howard. She and her late husband, Nate Doan, both graduated from the Santa School led by Howard. She traveled from Michigan to be in Albion for the dedication. She was joined by her son Jack.

Mrs. Doan said Howard “was like family” and she didn’t want to miss the statue unveiling.

After Howard’s death in 1966, Nate and Mary Ida Doan continued the school in Howard’s name. They would eventually move the school to Bay City, Mich. and they served as the school deans until Tom Valent took over the leadership in 1987. Mr. Valent continues to lead the school today in Midland, Mich. and he has kept the school in Howard’s name.

Three of Charles Howard’s grandchildren and pictured with the three Albion Betterment Committee directors who have worked on the statue project the past eight years. From left include Charles Howard’s grandchildren Susan Howard Brown, Charles Bergeman and Jane Holland and ABC directors Gary Derwick, Joe Gehl and Gary Kent.

The statue of Charles Howard in a Santa suit is in front of a 24-foot-long mural created in 2018 by Stacey Kirby Steward, an Albion native.

The new statue is at ground level so people can easily get close and get a picture with him, with the mural providing a striking backdrop for photos. The statue is just about life size at 6 feet tall.

Gary Simboli, a retired Albion music teacher, leads the group in Christmas music, including “Here Comes Santa Claus,” before the statue dedication. To the left are members of Charles Howard’s family, including three grandchildren and great-children. Mary Ida Doan and her son Jeff from Michigan also attended the celebration today in Albion.

Jane Holland of Williamsville, Charlie Howard’s granddaughter, thanked many people in the Albion community for working to honor her grandfather. She made special note of Ken McPherson of Medina, who is a Charles W. Howard Santa School graduate and a collector of memorabilia for the school and Christmas Park.

Holland said everyone can be a part of Howard’s legacy by asking themselves a simple question: “What can we do to make somebody else’s life brighter?” she said.

Howard’s grandson, Charles Bergeman of Lewiston, said he was named after his grandfather and was called “little Charles” when he was growing up.

Brian Porter, the sculptor of the statue, had experts on Howard over several times to his home and studio. In one visit to Porter’s home, Bergeman suggested the cheeks needed to be a little bigger to better reflect the likeness of his grandfather. Bergeman smiled and Porter took a photo, and used that image to shape the cheeks on the statue. Bergeman said the final look is perfect in capturing the look of his grandfather in a Santa suit that Howard himself designed.

Gary Derwick, Joe Gehl Gehl and Gary Kent, leaders of the Albion Betterment Committee, were the driving forces in raising money for the statue and seeing the project to fruition. The community gave $80,000 towards the project. There weren’t any grants or government money towards the statue.

Kent said Howard remains a revered leader in the Santa community. Kent was able to see that first-hand during Santa conferences in Albion in 2010 and 2015, when people who portray Santa traveled all over the country to come to Howard’s hometown.

Some of those people were disappointed there wasn’t more done in the community to celebrate Howard.

The Betterment Committee has since put up “Believe” signs, installed a lighted welcome sign with a cutout of Howard in a Santa suite on Route 98, upgraded a sign at the former Santa School site, and supported other projects honoring Howard, including the mural at Waterman Park where the statue is located.

Kent and the ABC group believe celebrating and highlighting some of the community’s history can help Albion be more vibrant today. Putting in the statue in the downtown should help bring more people to the business district in the heart of the community.

A crowd gathered at Waterman Park, which is a half block south of the Erie Canal. The Albion Betterment Committee thanked donors for making the project a reality.

Susan Howard Brown, second from right, is Charles Howard’s granddaughter. She made a 6-hour drive from Michigan to be at the statue unveiling. She is joined by her son William Brown and his girlfriend Catherine Crowell (left), and daughter Stephanie Brown and her fiancé Steven Evans. Santa Vern from Boonville, NY also joined the celebration.

Stephanie Brown, Howard’s great-granddaughter, said “the magic of Christmas” remains very special in the family, as well as Howard’s role leading the first Santa school. He was a prominent Santa who also starred in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for nearly 20 years.

“It’s nice to see that he is treasured here,” Brown said after the statue dedication. “He loved people and it’s nice to see the people around here love him back.”

Brian Porter, a sculptor from Pendleton, is photographed with the statue he created over about 18 months. Porter also is the sculptor for the bronze statue of a soldier outside the Orleans County YMCA, which is the former Medina Armory.

The statue in Medina of the soldier was dedicated on Sept. 7, 2019 in a project honoring the 550 soldiers who trained at the Armory from 1898 to 1947. They fought in four major conflicts: the Spanish American War, Mexican Border Incursion, World War I and World War II.

Many people stopped by the statue today to get a photo, including Stacey Kirby Steward, the mural artist of the Santa in a sleigh over the courthouse and downtown Albion. She visited the statue with her niece Rosemary Kirby, center, and daughter Skylar.

Mary Ida Doan, a Charles W. Howard Santa School graduate from when Charles Howard taught the school, gives the statue a close inspection. Howard’s family and local Santa enthusiast Ken McPherson of Medina also touch the statue and give it a close look. They all said the statue is a fitting tribute to the man who helped so many people serve in the role as Santa.