For nearly four decades, Steve Van Hale doled out tough love as a corrections officer.
But on the side, he was a right jolly old elf.
"He was made to be Santa," said his wife, Penny Fastner Van Hale. "He exuded that love, understanding and compassion."
Van Hale died of metastatic pancreatic cancer on Oct. 3. He was 63.
Van Hale grew up in South St. Paul with two much-older brothers and a strong work ethic. He had a newspaper route as a kid and later worked at the nearby meatpacking plants, just like his father, before heading off to college. He retired from Ramsey County Corrections in 2017, a career that included 14 years as a probation officer and 22 years at the Boys Totem Town residential program in St. Paul.
Sometime in his early 30s, Van Hale's alter ego as a rosy-cheeked old man with a white beard surfaced. He attended Santa Claus school in Midland, Mich., and learned how to maintain that twinkle in his eye while corralling unruly kids and cuddling crying babies.
Van Hale, who had no children of his own, eventually embraced the persona full time, dyeing his hair and beard, and spreading friendly "Ho, ho, hos" all year long.
"He'd sit four or five hours at a time to get his hair whitened," his wife said, only letting the roots show when his illness made him too weak.
In the summer, Van Hale wore Hawaiian Santa shirts with red Chinos and bright red sneakers. He had a collection of North Pole T-shirts and a signature red baseball cap, embroidered in gold thread with the initials S.C. During the pandemic, he sported Santa-themed face masks.
"I never washed so many red clothes in my life," Penny Van Hale said. "That's how I knew I was married to Santa."
Try as he might, Van Hale never managed to persuade his wife of 10 years to leave her own workshop (preparing taxes) to help him spread the spirit as Mrs. Claus.
"He tried," she said. "Every Christmas I'd get another piece of the costume."
Van Hale often didn't charge for appearances and was known to dig into his wallet to help struggling co-workers pay bills. One year, he made a Christmas Day trip to the neonatal intensive care unit to visit a struggling newborn, and refused payment from the parents.
"It wasn't about the money," Penny Van Hale said. "It was about the joy he brought."
Kathy Prawer, who ran a child care center out of her Oakdale home, hired Van Hale for 15 years to bring cheer to an annual Christmas potluck that drew parents, neighborhood kids and older siblings.
"The children knew this was the real guy," Prawer said.
"He was not a small man by any stretch," she said. "He was a man who took up the doorway when he came in. He was the essence of Santa. The children would be so excited, they were squealing and running around."
They sang songs, read a Santa storybook and shared their wish lists with the big guy.
At departure time, Prawer knew just what to do.
"I'd say: Oh! Look out the patio window in the kitchen so we can see if he gets in the sleigh and we'll see Rudolph's red blinking nose," she said.
"And all the children would press their faces against the patio window and look up into the sky. I got 10 kids squeezing into the window and they're all screaming and fighting for a spot — so Santa can make his exit out to the car in the driveway."
But then what? The children saw … nothing?
"No, no," Prawer said. "They all saw it. Almost all the children will say: I saw it! I saw the blinking red light!"
Services have been held.