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Santa was a big hit with Christy Harper during his visit last week to Somerville Road Elementary School in Decatur.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
Santa was a big hit with Christy Harper during his visit last week to Somerville Road Elementary School in Decatur.

Meet Santa
Don't believe in Jolly Old St. Nick? Obviously you've never met Johnny, the Decatur General pot-washer 'with a heart of gold'

By Ronnie Thomas 340-2438

He doesn't own a car, and he doesn't drive. He doesn't have to.

He's Santa Claus.

Naysayers need only to have gazed into the eyes of Betty Crandell's kindergarten students at Somerville Road Elementary School as they took gifts from Santa and sat on his lap to reel off their wish lists for Christmas morning.

They would have a hard time convincing the students that they were not staring into the face of Jolly Old St. Nick.

He'll repeat the performance Saturday at the pediatrics ward at Decatur General Hospital, this Santa's home base.

Yes, Virginia, Johnny Foster, 52, of Athens exists as Santa Claus as surely as doctors and nurses and medicines exist.

During the long off-season when there isn't much talk of Dancer and Prancer and rooftops and mistletoe, he is on full-time duty as pot washer for Morrison Healthcare Food Services at Decatur General, his job for the past nine years.

Foster's volunteer role as Santa began during Christmas 2005 as he pushed food carts into pediatrics and learned six of the children wouldn't be going home for Christmas.

Jody McCormick, secretary for the food services department, recalls Foster coming to her that year on Dec. 23 and telling her those children were on his mind all night and that he'd like to do something special for them.

"When he said he planned to give them gifts, I told him I'd pitch in. He replied that if he didn't have enough money, he'd let me know," McCormick said. "He went to the hospital gift shop and bought a stuffed teddy bear for each child and handed them out."

McCormick said Foster also cares as much for fellow workers.

"If anyone is hospitalized, their first visitor is Johnny," she said. "As he walks into the room, he'll be bringing a balloon, a stuffed animal and his familiar chuckle. He has a heart of gold."

Santa at the North Pole realized that he had a worker in Foster. His employer, Morrison Management Specialist of Atlanta, was about to give their beloved Santa's helper a boost of a lifetime. Foster's story spread and his company named him one of five grand prizewinners nationwide of its 2006 People First Award. Morrison operates in 44 states.

Foster and his wife, Evelyn, married nine years, earned a flight to Atlanta where Morrison executives honored them at a banquet. A few days before departing, McCormick took the Fosters on a shopping spree for clothes.

A limousine met them upon their arrival in Atlanta.

Foster turned down a seven-night trip to the Bahamas for him and his wife, choosing instead a four-day, three-night journey closer to home, to the Pearl River Resort in Choctaw, Miss. They stayed at the 5-star Golden Moon Motel and Casino. His company gave them $750 to spend and drove them there and back in a limousine.

$1,000 for toys

Morrison's also gave Foster $1,000 to replenish toys the children in pediatrics play with year round, an expensive Santa suit so he could present gifts in style and a six-foot-long stocking filled with treats for children.

"I couldn't work for a better company," he said. "I'm here. Just like country music, I'm here to stay as long as my health permits."

Foster said at one point during their recent excursions, his wife was having trouble believing what was happening to them.

"She asked, 'When is this going to end?' Foster said. "She couldn't believe the whirlwind she got caught up in. But we don't have children and perhaps that's why I love them even more."

Foster said his wife also told him that he would never have anything "because you give it all away. But if you give unselfishly, it'll come back to you a thousand times."

Dexter Troupe, who lives near the Fosters and works at General Electric, sees the kindness in Foster. That's why he's eager to give him rides to and from work.

"He picks me up every morning and brings me home every afternoon. You can't beat that," Foster said.

And in that famous New York Sun editorial in 1897, "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus," Francis P. Church wrote, "Nobody sees Santa Claus."

But more than a century later here in the Tennessee Valley, children do see him — if they see Johnny Foster.

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