The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 1, 2013

Southern Santa

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

CHARLESTON — Before you proceed to meet Mr. Howard Crisp, remember back to a time when you thought maybe, just maybe, there really was a Santa Claus.

In a town outside of Fayetteville, near the spectacular New River Gorge Bridge, lives a man with a universal face and baritone belly laugh.

Finding the house is, as one would expect of a legend’s abode, no easy feat. But if you can make it to the Shell station in Ansted, ask the attendant to point the way to Santa’s place and he will oblige, right as rain and reindeer.

The official address is Holley Street, or so reads the green sign because the mayor at the time didn’t realize the real way to spell “holly,” jokes Crisp. His home is neat and modest, and has year-round decorations, of which he’s unashamed. Those who fall within his welcoming gaze, be they 4, 14 or 41 years, are helpless to wonder in spite of themselves: Could this be? Is this the man, elf and legend?

“If I had a quarter for every time he was stopped at Bridge Day (in plain clothes), and asked for autographs…,” comments Crisp’s faithful partner Betty Allen. Perhaps Allen leaves her thought unfinished because it is understood to end with her becoming a rich woman. Or perhaps, all quarters aside, she is already rich beyond measure. “He makes my life amazing. He doesn’t have to be wearing red, or gloves, although it is proper etiquette for Santa. To me, he is Santa.”

Santa is, in fact, what she’s taken to calling her love, recognized locally and internationally for his spot-on resemblance to Saint Nick. Just this past February, when an ageless Crisp went ziplining in Honduras (ho ho ho, he laughs, recalling the wind in his very authentic and firmly rooted beard), people of all ages were drawn to him like wide-eyed children, requesting photos and autographs, scaling cultural and linguistic barriers to connect and establish proof that their encounter happened. Whether Grand Cayman Island, or El Rancho Grande restaurant in Beckley (Mexican is Santa’s favorite cuisine), no matter where Crisp goes in this strangely connected world, joy isn’t far behind.

There’s a cosmic karma to Santa impersonators, those in it to win it for their Christmas club accounts. The more they want paid, the less authentic they seem and the less in demand they are. Crisp has been known to, like the pied piper without malice, charm children away from mall photography lines, simply by passing by in plain clothes. He is not to be confused with those who disrespect the Santa persona, defends Allen, including Santa’s charity. Many of Crisp’s fulfilled requests have been gratis, on his own time and dime. When Allen agreed to let Crisp auction himself off for a good cause, he made $700 for the organization, offering a single off-duty house call and photo session with a family. This year, he will accept a salary for spending an entire season away to entertain the town of Rossford, Ohio, at Bass Pro Shop by being … well, by just being himself. They had a choice, says Allen. “We could’ve been in Fort Myers, Fla., but Santa doesn’t like it hot.”

Allen is a modern equivalent of Mrs. Claus, more PR agent than aproned matron. She handles each of Crisp’s appearances, managing his magically overloaded schedule, which officially begins in October. She shops online for his suits, both traditional red velvet and Old World wear. Allen shapes Crisp’s beard before photo shoots, and has been known to employ hot curlers in the process. “I’m very particular about Santa’s beard,” she admits. She encourages his daily fitness routine of walking and joining the local Silver Sneakers program. They live together in the home they built for their retirement in 2007, when Crisp decided 33 years of working for Columbia Gas was enough real world experience for any man. The couple became more active than ever, fulfilling requests for Santa gigs and together learning the art of cultivating wonder, networking with various prestigious Santa fraternities, like the IBRBS (International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas), hundreds of Santas strong. But none as authentic as Crisp, attests Allen, who in her “I Love Santa shirt” exclaims for effect, “Look at those eyebrows! Have you ever seen any others like them?”

In droves, they’ll come, those Buckeyes looking for rod and reel combos, ready to fish as well for any happiness Santa can fit beneath their trees. For those tinier tots as silently fixed as a deer to high beams? “You just say something about their pretty shoes, just kind of make them happy, talk to them about their dogs or cats,” says Crisp, revealing tricks of the Santa trade. Do you live on a farm? is always a nice frost-breaker. Most older kids are proactive lap-toppers, fully prepared to believe in the power of “Crisp” Kringle, no warm-up necessary. Do kids today still believe? Emphatically so, he says.

Kids are still basically the same in Santa’s eyes. The gifts these days are another fireside story. The technological equivalent of an atom bomb hit Santa’s list with the Information Age. Where Crisp’s requests once all began with “I” it seems they are now beginning mostly with lowercase i- something or other. But Santa has discovered Google, says Crisp, so he processes most inquiries just fine. He has been stumped exactly twice: once when a child asked him to quantify the ratio of female to male reindeer. “I don’t remember how I got out of that one,” he says. The other, when a little boy asked him if he could get his momma out of jail for Christmas. After a long, contemplative pause, Crisp admits, “I just told him, ‘Santa doesn’t control the jail, but we’ll see what we can do.’”

It’s those Susan Walker moments that really get to him, misting the famed twinkle in his eyes. “I’ve had little girls tell me, ‘I know you are real. I BELIEVE.’ The more of that I get, the more I love it.”

Once Crisp and Allen return to Ansted from Rossford, they’ll organize an ad hoc Christmas with their families (four children between them, seven grandchildren, two stepgrandchildren and one great-grandson), while most other families are ringing in the New Year. As a Christmas gift to each other, they’re considering a cruise to Alaska, reveals Allen, just three days by rail to the North Pole. It appears a vacation is in Crisp’s future, one that just happens to be where Santa gets his magic and, oh-by-the-way, to where his destiny lives.

“The good Lord put us all here for a reason,” reasons Allen. “He put (Crisp) here to do this … I believe.”

To the age-old question, there is yet another affirmation, said best with a wink and a smile. Yes, West Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.