Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Real Santa Claus

He didn't find his calling until late in life. In fact he already had finished a career in the US Navy and another as a Barber in a small Florida town. But when he decided to become Santa Claus he began to dance around even more than Frosty.

My great uncle, Walton Hugo Wilson was born May 15, 1924 in Oneco, Florida and died June 14, 2002 in Lecanto, Florida. His name was chosen by his older sister, my grandmother Edith. He was the youngest of seven and his mother told Edith, who was 18, she could name her brother. She named him after her two boyfriends.

Frank Wilson & Hugo Olson 1923
On the day her brother Walt was born Edith was making plans to marry Walton "Tink" Fulford and would do so three weeks later. Apparently Hugo Olson was still on her mind. This picture of her brother Frank Wilson with Hugo was in my grandmother's papers when she died.

Walt grew up in Cortez, Florida after his father died in 1933. He liked music and used to perform with the Culbreath family who later became famous as the "Cortez Grand Ole Opry." He was also a promoter of sorts. He made a wax record of them playing and took it to the radio station in St. Petersburg to get them to put the group on live. The first radio show was 45 minutes of just fiddle music because none of them would sing. Walt told them they needed to sing along so the next time he sang and they played the instruments. The Station must have liked it since they asked them to play every Saturday night. He had a radio voice so Walt also did the announcing when they played on the radio.

Walt joined the Navy during WW II and served as a Hospital Corpsman during the invasion of Iwo Jima. His unit suffered a 91% casualty rate. He said it was during the war that he picked up his skill as a barber. He would cut hair for his shipmates and became pretty good at it. He had worked in a barber shop back home in Oneco when he was a kid, sweeping up the clippings from the floor.

Walt outside barber shop 1979
When the Navy career ended he moved to Lecanto, Florida and worked at a barber shop in Crystal River. After a couple years the owner told him he was going to double the rent barbers paid, so Walt decided to build his own place. He built a one room, one chair barber shop next to his house. He did all the work himself, using 100 year old tongue and groove heart pine boards he salvaged from an old barn.

He opened the Whippoorwill Barber Shop on February 20, 1978 and ran it until 1992. Walt liked people and liked to talk. He said he would talk religion, politics, history or whatever came up.

Walt "Santa" Wilson 2001
After he closed the barber shop Walt started his 3rd career as Santa Claus. Like his others he had been practicing it before he started it up seriously. He came to visit my folks a couple times around Christmas and would always be in costume.

I remember one cold night when we had Christmas supper at my aunt Annie's house in Sarasota and Walt was standing out in her yard waving at the cars as they drove by. Annie and Julian always had a huge Christmas light display that stopped traffic on their street. Having a real life Santa didn't hurt their popularity at all.

Walt dressed up and made the rounds at schools, nursing homes and anyplace else that would let him in the door. He had white hair and the beard year round. His personality was perfect for the job. He always had a funny story or joke to tell and loved kids.

Walt married Freida Oliff King on November 5, 1954 in the Northside Church of Christ in Jacksonville, Florida. She died in 2011, nine years after him and they are both buried in the Magnolia Cemetery in Lecanto, Florida.

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