But wait. There’s more to this story. As you travel through the 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York, you’ll no doubt notice the number of amazing gifts we given to our community, our nation and even the world. Is there something in our spirit of living that has made Greater Western New York such a font of helpful, practical and invigorating ideas? What makes our character so creative yet so generous? As I’m writing this particular passage, we are within a few days of Christmas. I can’t help but think how our regional personality resembles Santa Claus.
And then I discover this.
Not only do we have the same jolly, giving, never-give-up disposition of Santa Claus, but we also have Santa himself! Yes, you heard it here, folks. Santa Claus was born right here in Greater Western New York. Orleans County, to be exact. Albion, to be precise.
On June 15, 1896, the good Lord blessed William Asa and Martha Howard with a baby boy whom they named Charles W. Howard. In fourth grade, he was picked to play Santa Claus in a school play. There was no turning back. He soon found himself playing the part for church plays, then at stores in Rochester, Buffalo and Albion. A reporter, noting he was getting too many gigs to fill personally, suggested he start a Santa Claus School to train potential stand-ins. In 1937, Charlie did, and his Santa Claus School in Albion would become world famous (so much that it continues to train Santas today, some 45 years after Charlie passed away). His correspondence school once boasted Jimmy Cagney and Orson Wells as pupils.
But his big break would come in 1946, when Twentieth Century Fox would hire him as a technical advisor for their classic movie Miracle on 34th Street. From there he would go on to serve as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Santa Claus for 17 years from 1948 through 1965. That exposure led him to television appearances on What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth and The Tonight Show.
A man of many talents and interests, Charlie was a serial entrepreneur. In 1919, at the age of 23, he started his own toy company, the Medina Toy Company. He marketed his products under the brand “Sturdy Toys.” A big fan of ice cream, he once developed his own recipe and started “Howard’s Ice Cream.”
Charlie, though, was first and foremost, the ultimate community minded citizen. He lived in the same house in Albion all his life. He traveled the nation and could have set up shop anywhere, but he brought his business – and customers – back to his home town. When local farmers needed help with publicity, Charlie made the world’s largest apple pie and once built a scale replica of Niagara Falls with apple juice. He made the rounds at all the local fairs and even got involved in community theatre, where he wrote, directed and acted in many plays across the region.
In the end, Charlie Howard – the world’s greatest Santa Claus – embodied the ideal of the Greater Western New York character and continues to serve as a role model for all of us. He loved his work and made it his play, but he never let his work change him. Ironically, as someone famous for playing Santa Claus, he never grew a beard. Perhaps, unlike Albion native (although she was a resident of Westfield, Chautauqua County when she actually wrote it) Grace Bedell’s letter to Abraham Lincoln, Charlie never received a letter from an Albion girl suggesting he grow one.
Charlie did understand how to integrate his work in his life and his life in his work. He’s famous of espousing a Santa-centric philosophy of optimism and benevolence. He once said: “To say there is no Santa Claus is the most erroneous statement in the world. Santa Claus is a thought that is passed from generation to generation. After time this thought takes on a human form. Maybe if all children and adults understand the symbolism of this thought we can actually attain Peace on Earth and good will to men everywhere.”
And maybe that’s the perfect way to end the year. May I close by saying to all, no matter what time of year and what time of day, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. For those who don’t believe “Wide Right” or “No Goal” should define our region, this is the book for you. It makes a great gift for the person who has everything! (It’s also a great way to spend those gift cards you’ve been holding onto. You can order it right now by clicking this link that takes you to the publisher’s CreateSpace store. If you prefer, order it directly from Amazon or pick it up from your favorite bookstore or any of the locations listed here.