Yes, Missoula, there is a  Santa Claus and he lives part of the year in Florence.

So as not to create a sensation, he goes by the name of Charlie Jerke, and masquerades as a retired classic-car enthusiast.

But let there be no doubt – he is Santa, through and through.

“When I take pictures with the little babies, they just snuggle up in the arm of my suit and I could hold them forever,” says Mr. Claus.

Yes, there are fake Santas, imposters, wannabes, helpers wandering the Earth’s shopping malls and company shindigs.

Who wouldn’t want to be Santa, after all?

But Jerke, ensconced in Montana as part of the Santa Protection Program, is the genuine jolly ol’ St. Nicholas, alive and well, chubby and cheerful, with a real white beard and the power to grant a child’s wish.

*****

Jerke, whose last name is pronounced like a strip of dried beef.

Jerke, who made his living in the hotel industry and restores and sells classic cars, and who moved to Florence with his wife Candi nearly 20 years ago.

Jerke, whose red cheeks and nose poke out of a bountiful white crop of bona fide hair, from the top of his dome to the tip of his chin whiskers.

And Jerke, who had turned completely gray before his two daughters turned 10, but had not a thought about being western Montana’s busiest Santa.

Until around 10 years ago, that is, when he was asked to help out St. Nick with a few guest appearances.

“Pure accident,” said Jerke, now 61.

A group of music boosters for Florence High School needed a Santa for a fundraiser that year, and asked Jerke, a kind soul who sat on the board of the Stevensville Food Bank, to take the gig.

“I only did it that one day,” said Jerke. “And the next year they said, ‘You were so good! Will you do it again?’ ”

He was good. And that’s because being Santa drew out of Jerke all those fatherly instincts as the little kids touched his heart.

“So I purchased a cheap suit, a fake beard and fake hair and did it the next year,” he said.

Santa Claus was coming to love this job, and the town of Florence was delighted with this beaming, avuncular man who looked and played the part to a tee, except for the pillow he still has to tuck in the Santa coat over his too-trim belly.

Could it be? he thought. Could it be my calling to be a professional Santa Claus? To get paid a decent wage in retirement, and help raise money for books and music and food at the same time?

Answer:

“A child comes and tugs on my arm, and I’ll look in the little fella’s eyes. They’re very important to me, and I will talk to them and they will remember me.”

*****

Jerke is one of around 400 professional Santa Clauses in the United States, many of whom have attended one of a few Santa Claus schools (yes, yes there are) and some of whom make a year-round living doing it.

Once Jerke had set his mind to being the best Santa he could be, one thought occupied him: Be real.

“I said if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do this proper,” he thought.

So he hired a professional seamstress from Florida – sorry North Pole – to design and stitch his custom-made Santa suit. Fur lining, with Velcro for a quick change of outfit (still, it takes him 30 minutes). Leather boots. A big leather belt.

And he shelved the razor blades and scissors.

“The really funny story is I used to have long hair and he used to have short hair,” said Jerke’s wife, a retired teacher who does not and has never played the part of Mrs. Claus.

His razor dormant, Jerke’s chin sprouted a thick mound of white fur, which is freshened before every appearance with a cloud of baby powder.

“We don’t just dress up as Santa Claus,” said Jerke, of the fellows in his trade. “We are Santa Claus.”

That’s not the case for your average, Joe Six Pack, workaday Santa, who doesn’t maintain a website or have business cards featuring, in Jerke’s case, a reindeer pulling a 1947 Ford Woody station wagon.

The Santa Claus of a child’s imagination demands authenticity in the real world.

Still, Jerke does not begrudge – not even a bit – all the other Santas in the world. He can’t be everywhere at once, and so what’s wrong with a little bit of help in spreading Christmas cheer?

Take Todd Kaye, who has been keeping a naughty-and-nice spreadsheet of his own for six years.

Kaye, who sports a salt-and-pepper beard that is more salt than pepper, is also hopping around this time of year as the Santa for private parties, nonprofits and myriad other groups.

He too takes his job quite seriously.

“I slap on a red suit and there’s no doubt who I am,” said Kaye. He treats the job like the business it is – incorporation, insurance, the whole nine yards of chimney flue.

“If I do it right and build the business up, it could be a lucrative month,” he said. The Santa industry pays around $100 an hour in these parts.

No fake beards for Kaye, either. In fact, the Missoula man is a member of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. And yes, there is such a thing.

Kaye prefers smaller venues, where the children line up to sit on his lap and rattle off their wish lists, as opposed to big shopping centers where mom and dad are bopping between stores and simply need to park their feet.

“I don’t do malls,” he said. “I don’t like to be in situations where kids are forced upon you.”

But even with a captive audience of little ones, Kaye hears the darndest things.

“One little kid asked me if Santa Claus was dead,” Kaye recalled. “I said, ‘Well, no – not that I know of.’ ”

*****

And then there’s Jim Wenderoth, a retired associate dean of the College of Technology and yet another of Missoula’s side-Santas.

Wenderoth, who guiltlessly straps on a fake beard for his appearances, hasn’t been paid for the 16 years he’s been ho-ho-holding Christmas court as a volunteer Santa.

“But that’s not to say people don’t gift me,” he slyly admitted.

It was 16 years ago that “a friend of mine needed a Santa for her day care,” Wenderoth said. “So I did it and sort of fell in love with it.”

Wenderoth is the annual Santa for the University of Montana School of Business party, and also for this year’s Parade of Lights downtown.

He also plays the part at retirement communities and nursing homes in the Missoula area.

Three years ago, Wenderoth suited up and visited a retirement home where his 89-year-old mother was living.

Mom knew nothing of this. But a Santa beard, even a fake one, can’t hide a twinkle or blunt a mother’s instincts.

“She looked at me, then told me, ‘I know you,’ ” Wenderoth said. “ ‘I know your eyes.’ ”

*****

Yes, beards and tailor-made suits and red cheek blush do not cover everything.

Nor do they make a man a Santa. Only the spirit of Santa makes a Santa.

Threads can be authentic; compassion cannot be faked.

So Jerke listens, inquires, laughs and engages every child, even when, with a line stretching to the North Pole, he only has a minute to do it – because time is not money but equity on his lap.

What is your favorite subject? What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you have any brothers or sisters?

None of it is scripted. “I can’t remember nothin’ anyway,” Jerke said.

Except, of course, for the one question asked of every boy and girl: “And what is it you would like this year?”

They want toys, of course. Dolls to play with, cars to race, Legos to stack.

But then – and this is far too common – a girl, sensing in this stranger a warmth and security foreign to her, will say: “I want a better house for my family. And I want my daddy to love me.”

It comes with the territory, these wishes voiced by children from broken homes, from poverty.

Santa, who metes out goodwill in equal measure to all children, keeps his tears to himself, though his heart breaks every time.

“A lot of these kids who have been brought into this world don’t deserve the home life that they have,” he said, swallowing a lump in his throat. “Can you imagine sitting there in front of your class on Santa’s knee and asking for a pair of underwear?”

So whether he’s Santa, or back undercover as Charlie Jerke, the man who never had any intention of being a jolly old elf works to stock the shelves of the Stevensville Pantry Partners Food Bank, or to buy books for children who need them.

Santa doesn’t just sit around, after all. He works.

Still, there is always that hope that a child’s wish will make some magic.

It’s right there, on Santa’s business card.

“Be careful what you wish for,” it says, “because your dream may come true.”

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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