The sexually and physically abused children at The Galaxy Center in Garland were afraid of neighborhood resident Andy McCollum when he first visited the clinic as Santa Claus in the late 1970s.

The children didn’t see a jolly hero who spreads happiness during the holidays. Instead, they saw a big, loud, scary man, McCollum says.

McCollum knelt on the floor at the center, speaking to the children on their level. After a while, they stopped relating to him as a potentially threatening adult and started to warm up to his Santa Claus persona.

“It was the toughest job I ever did,” McCollum says. “Santa Claus won the children over.”

McCollum, 60, has been a volunteer Santa since he was 19 years old. He returns to The Galaxy Center each year, where his wife Diane works as a psychotherapist. He has visited hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, orphanages, women’s and children’s shelters, the Bath House Cultural Center, and he has rung the Salvation Army bell dressed in full costume.

“It’s great fun,” McCollum says. “The love, warmth and cherishing that comes back to you is magnified inside of you. It spills out all over everything.”

The week before Christmas, McCollum says he may have up to two or three Santa appearances a day. He seldom gets paid for going ho ho ho, he says, and when he does, he gives the money away.

“Once I put a $100 bill in the (Salvation Army) bucket, and the guy ringing the bell looked at me like I was crazy,” McCollum says.

McCollum was first recruited to play Santa as a University of Oklahoma student. A friend showed up at his door dressed in Santa’s red suit and handed him a candy cane. The friend planned to go to the state mental hospital, and McCollum decided to join in.

“These people never get any visitors,” McCollum says. “They only relate through touch. They touch you and cry.”

McCollum, who makes “infomercials” and is a freelance writer, was the news director for KVIL for 14 years. The memory of the late KVIL morning show producer Sandi Hopkins inspires McCollum to keep playing Santa.

“Sandi thought Santa Claus was important,” McCollum says. “She convinced me that Santa was really part of the loving spirit of Christmas.”

The Business of Santa Claus

Bill Brewer has been just about everything.

A pilot. An insurance salesman. A juvenile officer. A newspaper columnist. A model.

But one of his favorite things to be is Santa Claus.

Brewer operates a Santa business, charging $100 an hour for his performances at Christmas parties. He is booked solid from Dec. 1 through Christmas, doing two appearances on some days.

“I take life as it comes along,” says the 69-year-old neighborhood resident.

“If something comes along that looks like it will be fun and contribute to the world, I’ll do it.”

Brewer got his first Santa gig through his modeling agency six years ago. A friend offered to make the costume, so he decided to try it.

When Brewer plays Santa, he says there’s more to it than listening to people’s gift requests and giving a hardy “Ho, Ho, Ho!”. He dances, he sings, he hugs, he tells jokes – whatever is needed to make people feel the joy of the holidays.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Brewer says. “You’re completely anonymous.”

“People are so beautiful, and some of them are so lonely. You get to where you can tell about people by how they react to Santa Claus.

“Everyone believes in Santa Claus to some degree, even if it’s just a symbol of good, jolly and giving. Santa Claus is always giving.”

The other 11 months of the year, Brewer sells life insurance and volunteers at Baylor Hospital’s Heart to Heart program. He talks with patients who are getting bypass surgery, which he has had twice.

“It’s all part of doing what you can do to help,” Brewer says.

“I went to the doctor and told him I had to live to 150 to get everything done I wanted to do. He said: We’ll do it.”

As a hobby, Brewer models. He has posed for brochures and ads for companies such as LaQuinta and Frito Lay.

No matter what he’s doing, Brewer says he enjoys life.

“I’ve always been positive,” he says. “There’s always going to be something up ahead, and it will work out fine.”

“If you leave everybody a little better than you found them, then you justify the acquaintance, and everyone is a little better off.”

“That’s what Santa Claus is all about – he always leaves people better off.”