Y es, Virginia, Santa does ride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It’s not red like his sled, rather it’s black like coal — though he does promise to check his list twice before dropping a piece of coal in a stocking.
But this Santa expects that after another hard economic year on the Harbor, most, if not all, of the children deserve a hug and a smile.
“I know it’s been tough for people and I think Santa should be there to bring joy to children’s hearts,” he said. “I plan to do my part.”
Posing with his motorcycle for some photos at the SouthShore Mall on Tuesday, about a dozen children got a glimpse of the big jolly fellow. In the off-season, Santa goes by Rob Hoefer (as in ho-ho-Ho-fer). The 47-year-old was born in Eugene, Ore., and raised in Tacoma. At 18, he joined the U.S. Air Force and retired from the service after more than 20 years.
Like Santa, he’s been all over the world — New Mexico, Guam, Korea, The Philippines. He retired in Utah and moved to Aberdeen in June. His father owns property in Ocean Shores, which prompted him to look on the Harbor for a home.
“I like small towns,” he says. “It’s a good feeling living in one.”
This is the first time he’ll be a mall Santa and he’s truly looking forward to the experience at the SouthShore Mall.
In 2009, after he retired from the Air Force, he started letting his beard and hair grow out a bit.
“My hair is just all curls and curls and curls, like Chewbacca,” he says. “I never knew I had curly hair until I was 40.”
A friend asked him to play Santa at a party. They split the cost of his first Santa suit and the whole thing was a hit.
“When I got out of the car, he was struck by how much I was Santa, that it was all smiles,” he said. “It was so, so nice that even his grandmother jumped into my lap. That was my first Santa experience.”
Sure, as a child, he had grown up with Santa. He even has two adult children of his own, but no grandchildren. Playing Santa gave him that kind of grandfather experience he’d been looking for, he says.
“The next year, I was Santa for different parties and it’s just taken off since then,” he says.
His wife Diana is his manager, biggest supporter and biggest critic, he says, oftenv moving his Santa hat around and getting the details just right for photos with children that will likely be kept for decades, if not longer.
“It’s all about the magic and he’s got that magic,” she said.
He keeps his natural beard, letting it grow out. The last time he shaved was in February. This time around, he’ll probably just keep it on full-time. Having a real beard gives children “a more authentic experience,” he says.
He’s been bleaching the hair out to give it a firmer color of white. During the off-season, he says he’ll dye it a darker color.
He’s currently using his G.I. Bill to pay for classes at the University of Phoenix, where he’s studying business management. He travels to Tacoma for the classes.
“I love Santa, but I don’t want to be Santa 24-7, every day for a whole year,” he said. The 47-year-old says he doesn’t stuff his suit —“It’s all real Santa, all 100 percent pure Santa beef.”
And he does practice his “ho ho hos.”
“You don’t want to chew it,” he says. “I try to use more of my natural voice than anything. When I shout out a ‘ho ho ho,’ I try to make it sound as much like Santa as I remember hearing it. The people know if you’re acting or really mean it, just like with the beard and the children.”
Yes, he answers to Santa. It’s just natural for him.
At the mall on Tuesday, little Shyla Rivera ran down half the mall as soon she caught a glimpse of Santa, screaming “Santa! Santa!” the whole way. Her mother Dana was running to catch up.
“For Shyla, Christmas starts in July — it’s just her favorite holiday and she just loves Santa,” Dana says.
When it comes to children, Santa stops everything he’s doing and gives his entire focus to them.
“Once, we had a child chase us for a block and a half before we were able to stop,” Diana said. “The little boy was just so out of breath but was just so happy to see Santa.”
“That makes you feel special that a kid loves the Santa person so much they’re willing to run from their family just to give you a hug,” he said.
His favorite moments have been visiting with less fortunate children — the homeless and in shelters.
“Those moments truly touched me,” he said.
He did have plans to ride his Harley in full Santa regalia around town to promote his appearance at the mall, but those plans hit were washed out whenv the storm hit earlier this week. At some point in the next few weeks, if the weather clears, he’d like to do some rides around the area.
“The cold isn’t a problem for me,” he said. “I can put on clothes underneath the suit and would need chaps, but I think Santa with chaps on would be cool, too.”
For his photo gig at the SouthShore Mall, he’s leaving the Harley at home. But mall manager Jamie Walsh has crafted an eleborate wooden throne in the middle of the mall, where they’ll be selling photo packages.
Starting the day after Thanksgiving, Santa will be at the mall from noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. He’s off on Monday and Tuesday.
“Being in the military has hardened me a bit, but being Santa has lifted that shield,” he adds. “It’s just really helped me open up. There’s still a lot of good, innocent people there that just love the simple things and a happy smile.”