Issaquah High School graduate ‘Santa Al’ brings Christmas joy to ailing children
December 21, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Santa Claus faced a daunting task just before Thanksgiving.
Clad in street clothes, the holiday figure hurried to Seattle Children’s on a mission. Santa Claus had been summoned to the bedside of a cancer-stricken boy to celebrate Christmas early. Doctors said the boy seemed unlikely to survive until the holiday.
So, the plainclothes Santa Claus retired to a nearby hospital room and transformed into the familiar figure — all red and green, fur and velvet.
(The hospital has strict rules regarding costumed characters on campus due to security concerns and infection-control procedures. Hence, the need for Santa Claus to change inside the hospital.)
Then, the bearded figure hauled a toy-laden sack to the other room to meet the ailing child.
“I put my bag down and I walked over to the bed and I put my hand on his arm, you know, the first thing he said to me. He looked up at me and with the pain in his voice, he asked, ‘Would you pray for me?’”
Al Krush is Santa Claus, or, in some circles, Santa Al — not just a guy in a fur-trimmed suit for the stretch from Thanksgiving to Christmas, not someone masked behind a bogus beard seated atop a mall throne, but a real-life, honest-to-goodness Kris Kringle.
“There’s so much sadness in this world, and if I can put a smile on a person’s face for that moment, it breaks the sadness that’s in their life,” Krush said Dec. 16 during a respite from Christmas commitments.
Only, the Issaquah High School graduate and Renton resident does not need a red suit to resemble the Santa Claus depicted on a million Christmas cards. The real-life Father Christmas features the same crinkly-eyed smile, a beard like a cotton ball and a mane of snowy curls.
‘In your heart’
Krush, 71, understands the importance of the image, but the accoutrements do not matter nearly as much as the persona. The underpinning beneath the classic suit and the mountains of toys is a strong religious faith.
“Santa Claus has to really, truly be Santa Claus for the children and for the adults,” he said. “It has to be in your heart. People know if it’s coming from your heart or not.”
The episode at Seattle Children’s is similar to many others Krush undertakes throughout the year. Often, the costumed Santa Claus arrives at the bedsides of children battling cancer and other serious illnesses.
Santa Claus totes toys for the ailing children and siblings, too — “Santa just can’t come in there and be selective,” Krush observed — and sings Christmas carols.
“Then, I go out to my car and I break down, because it just rips my heart out,” he said.
Krush also checks in on abused children, disabled adults and hospitalized veterans throughout the holiday season. The highlight for children is the chance to chat.
“Children love to talk to Santa. I make sure that I spend a little time with every child, because that’s what the child wants, is to be able to talk to Santa Claus,” he said.
The idea hatched 20 years ago after a foot injury kept a young granddaughter from meeting Santa Claus.
“So, Mrs. Claus decides the grandchildren have got to see Santa Claus,” he recalled. “So, she goes down and buys me a Santa Claus suit with a fake beard.”
‘Santa loves all children’
Now, Krush, a part-time employee at a local construction company, performs as Santa Claus at holiday functions to raise money for charity efforts.
“I’ll never quit doing it,” Krush said. “As long as I am able to do Santa, these children with cancer are going to be my focus.”
The nonprofit organization Childhood Cancer Careline connects the on-call Kris Kringle to many ill children.
“Working with Al is like working with Santa Claus,” Childhood Cancer Careline President Denise Plaxco said.
The depiction Krush offers matches the religious figure of St. Nicholas more than the Santa Claus image fostered by “Miracle on 34th Street” and Coca-Cola holiday ads.
Krush has some quibbles about the pop culture portrayal of Kris Kringle. The concept of a naughty-and-nice list, for instance.
“Santa does not have a naughty-or-nice list. Parents started that,” he said. “Santa loves all children. It’s just that some are better than others.”
Still, the look-alike cannot steer clear of comparisons to the real deal.
So, Krush carries candy canes all year long in a small red bag. The usual outfit for the off-duty Santa Claus: red canvas sneakers, a Father Christmas belt buckle and a cherry-hued windbreaker featuring the embroidered likeness of a cartoon Kris Kringle.
“I go to the grocery store and somebody will walk up and say, ‘Well, you look like Santa Claus.’ I give them a candy cane,” Krush said. “Well, that convinces them that I’m Santa Claus.”
The question arose at a 50-year reunion of Issaquah High School graduates in 2008. Former classmates asked Krush about the Santa Claus portrayal.
“I started out believing in Santa Claus as a kid,” he recalled. “By the time I graduated, I didn’t believe in Santa Claus. Now, 50 years later I find out, here I am, Santa Claus.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.