BYRON -- Once upon a time, George Turner was sent home from school and told to shave.
It might not have been a big deal, except he was 12 years old.
A fresh crop of whiskers began greeting him every morning. By the time he was an adult, he was shaving twice a day.
He attended Harding University in Arkansas, a conservative college that did not allow facial hair during the hippie years of the 1960s. He went into the Army, which sent him to Vietnam, and was later in the Air Force. Military regulations kept a beard off his chin and a moustache away from his upper lip.
He retired from the military on June 15, 2001, flew home the next day and officially “retired my razor.”
By then, his reddish brown hair was already sprouting 50 shades of gray. Eventually, it turned snow white. He grew out his hair and gravity pushed his beard six inches down his neck.
His weight began to climb the stairs, going from 185 to 320 pounds.
After all, nobody wants a skinny Santa.
“There are a lot of Krispy Kremes in there,” he said, patting his belly. (He also admits a weakness for the soul food over at Martha’s Country Cooking on Ga. 49.)
George Turner is aka Mr. Claus, even if he had to grow into the part. He has been spreading Christmas cheer across Georgia for the past 13 years. He has put on his red Santa suit for events at schools, churches, nursing homes and children’s parties.
He is not a mall Santa nor a Santa-for-hire. He has never been paid one Rudolph red-nosed cent for playing the role. For those who wanted to take up a love offering for him at a recent appearance at Christ Lutheran Church in Perry, he asked that donations be sent to an orphanage in Honduras.
“I never planned any of this,” he said. “It just sort of happened, and I enjoy going with it.”
He does not own a sleigh. He drives a green Ford pickup. He does not live at the North Pole. He has a home in Orchard Park, on the outskirts of Byron.
For many, though, he is the real deal. He walks the walk and talks the talk. He hands out coins with an image of Santa and the word “BELIEVE.”
George is a civil service worker at Robins Air Force Base. He has his college degree in history and a master’s in international relations. He loves to watch British comedies. He and his wife, Melanie, have two children and five grandchildren.
He was supposed to be born on Christmas Day. His mother’s due date was Dec. 25, but the stork decided to beat the holiday traffic and dropped him off five days early.
On Saturday, he turned 67.
Happy birthday, Santa.
He has lived all over the country and in many parts of the world. While stationed in Turkey, he visited Demre three times. It is the home of St. Nicholas, the fourth century Christian saint who was the inspiration for St. Nick.
Very few Santa Clauses can boast his employment record. He has done a little of everything, a Nick-of-all-trades. He has been a freelance photographer, a dishwasher and short-order cook. He has worked for a building supply company, driven a snow plow, clocked in at JCPenney and was once a member of the “best-educated garbage truck crew in the state of Arkansas.”
George was living in Kennesaw in 2001 when the youth minister at his church in Marietta asked “very apologetically” if he would suit up for a “Breakfast With Santa” at the church.
The children had fun. He had even more.
When he moved to Middle Georgia a few years later, he was undeniably Santa. Or Santa’s twin brother. Folks would approach him in stores and restaurants, wanting to know if he made appearances at holiday events.
After being asked to visit a nursing home in Warner Robins, he rented a Santa outfit. When more invitations started rolling in, he invested in a costume from Party City.
The red pants, vest and coat are made of velour, with satin lining. He wears a lacy, white “pirate” shirt and black boots he ordered from a company that makes Civil War re-enactment clothing.
Even when he is out of costume, he is always in character. He wears a red polo shirt to work almost every day.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Presidents Day or the Fourth of July. Santa is always in the building.
By now, he is accustomed to double takes from every corner. Children are drawn to him like refrigerator magnets. People have been known to lean out their car windows to take pictures of him at stop lights. He once had a man take a photograph in his rear-view mirror.
“The other day, two waitresses from IHOP were walking across the parking lot and saw me,” he said. “One of them came over and said, ‘Hey, Santa. Can we take a selfie with you?’”
On Friday, he attended a Christmas party for foster children at the Jones County Division of Family and Children Services. He got that gig after Rose Chambers, a resource development specialist there, was shopping with her granddaughter at Lowe’s in Warner Robins. She turned the corner, and there was Santa.
“His eyes were even glistening,” she said.
At the Denver airport, a group of high school students from England began staring and pointing at him.
“My Mum thinks you’re Father Christmas,” one of them said.
“Tell your Mum,” said Santa, “sometimes I am.”
He won’t go places where he might be a distraction. He stays away from the malls and shopping centers during the holidays to avoid confusion with any other Santas who might be in the vicinity. He does not call attention to himself at Toys R Us, although that’s not always easy. He dares not venture out on Christmas Eve.
At the Buca di Beppo Italian restaurant in Macon, he stopped a waitress in her tracks last summer. She opened her mouth but did not have to say a word.
“I just smiled and said, ‘Yes, I am,’” he said.
Sometimes Santa’s greatest gift is not what he places under the tree. Last year, at a school in Warner Robins, a third-grader came up and whispered: “I just want to be loved.”
How could he ho-ho-ho with a lump in his throat?
“Well, God loves you, and I love you,” he said.
George will never forget that child. Or any child.
“If they can walk away happy and feeling good, then I feel good,” he said. “I want them to know someone cares about them.”
Contact Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.