Modern-day Mr. Rogers
BY MIKE WARREN
WISCONSIN RAPIDS — At a time when children seem to have more questions than answers, a Wisconsin Rapids man hopes to provide some clarity – using a role he looks like he was born to play.
Santa Claus is generally depicted as a white-bearded man, often with spectacles, and also wearing a red coat and trousers, both with white fur trim, a red hat with still more white fur, and matching black leather belt and boots, while carrying a bag full of gifts for children all over the world.
Ron Berry is no stranger to carrying a bag. He spent 23 years as a professional golf caddy in California, before relocating to Green Bay to help with his wife’s grandfather in his final years. After his passing, Ron and wife Casi decided to stay in Wisconsin to raise their son Griffin. They settled in Wisconsin Rapids, when Ron went to work training caddies at Sand Valley. He was there for five years before two episodes of heat stroke sidelined his caddying career for good.
In his retirement, Ron started growing a small, home-based laser-engraving business. Berry also started growing what many retired men do – a beard.
“The beard came in about halfway, and next thing I know there’s this little girl wrapped around my leg, and says, ‘Santa!’ We started looking at it, and thought, ‘Huh, I do look like Santa.’ So last year, we tried it out,” says Berry. “We set up a photo curtain and we offered free pictures with Santa if anybody would like them. And people came, and started wanting to get free pictures,” Berry added. “Turned out that no one around here was actually doing pictures with Santa. So we thought, ‘The kids need a Santa.’ So this year, we decided to take it full-fledged, and I started growing the beard much earlier, and I can’t believe it came in as much as it did,” adds Berry. “I look in the mirror and I see Santa.”
The Berry’s porch has now become Santa’s room, complete with a Christmas tree, a fireplace and of course Santa’s favorite chair. And for someone who sets up shop just a block from Howe Elementary, he’s a hit with the school crowd. “Every morning, my nine-year-old son, I walk him to school, and I’m not dressed in any special way, and yet the kids are just coming up, telling me what they want for Christmas and yelling from across the parking lot.”
Now, Berry does offer pictures with “Santa” free of charge, but he is accepting donations. That money – along with other donations to his GoFundMe page – will go into building sets for Berry’s latest idea, “The Santa Cause,” a weekly program he hopes to get established with Wisconsin Rapids Community Media.
“We’re going to have 5-7 kids come and join us for each of the shows, almost like a birthday celebration,” Berry explains. “And we bring on community guests, people who do different businesses, firemen, singers, electricians, plumbers, whoever.”
Berry likes to envision his character on the program as a modern-day Mr. Rogers. “Santa’s gonna be around 365 days a year, coming down from the North Pole to talk with the kids, talk with the families, to bring back family values while attacking some of the harder issues that nobody’s facing anymore.” Berry hopes to launch the weekly program in January.
Berry is no stranger to show business. “I used to do magic shows all over,” he says. “I also was a master hypnotist. So, we did hypnosis shows around the country.” Berry was also heavily involved in his church back in Monterey, CA, where he served as youth pastor who led a group of puppeteers. “And I had done Santa before, but just at church. They’d say, ‘Hey, would you put on the beard?’ I’d say, ‘Sure, why not?’ But now, I’m old enough and the beard is grey, almost white,” the 61-year-old Berry adds.
To see him on the street, Ron Berry is the spitting image of someone many would agree could pass as Santa Claus. Also known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, and Kris Kringle, Santa is that legendary character who is said to deliver gifts to children across the world on Christmas Eve, aided of course by his elves at the North Pole and eight tiny reindeer who pull and guide his sleigh through the air.
“The kids have all these questions,” says Berry. “And kids are very, very smart. So, when they come up to me and say, ‘How do reindeer fly?’ they know right away whatever answer I give them, they’re gonna come back with, ‘Well, that can’t really happen.’ Well, nowadays with the way science is and technology, I’m doing everything I can to come up with answers that are practical,” Berry explains.
While Berry and his family are gearing up for “The Santa Cause,” they are also gearing up for the Christmas rush. Santa will be available in his workshop through Dec. 23. “Just bring your camera and take all the pictures you need.” Santa’s Showroom is located at 851 Oak Street, and is open to the public Tuesdays-Fridays from noon to 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can also call or text 715-213-6009 or email [email protected] to set up special appointment times as well. You can find out more, and see photos, at Santa Central Wisconsin on Facebook.