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Under the red suit, a Bloomington-Normal Santa's helper has a giving heart

A man dressed up as Santa
John Stephens from Normal has been playing Santa for 56 years, since he was a senior in high school. Every December he's in a lead role at Santa's Station in Uptown Normal.

John Stephens of Normal loves spending time with kids, but kids don’t know they’re spending time with him. That’s because this time of year Stephens wears a big, fluffy, white beard, and a red suit and hat.

Stephens has been one of Santa’s helpers on-and-off since 1967, starting when he was a senior in high school in Mount Vernon. He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, who previously played Santa for their family.

“I hope my father is looking down on me when I do it, and my grandfather, [watching me] just keep up the good work,” Stephens said.

Stephens helped bring the tradition of Santa to Uptown Normal in 2012, loading up a Christmas tree and a chair into a red wagon and stopping door to door at the shops, giving children the opportunity to have a visit with Santa Claus.

Inspired in part by Bloomington-Normal Jaycees Christmas parade in Bloomington, Stephens worked with the Town of Normal and University High School Band Director Jason Landes to create a mini-parade in Uptown Normal that ended at Uptown Circle – where they constructed a Santa house. The Santa’s Station house was built with donated lumber and features a donation box.

The Santa’s Station continues again this year in Uptown Normal. Santa will continue to host visiting hours from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday evenings and from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday afternoons through Christmas Eve. Donations are appreciated and will be distributed to various charitable organizations.

Any proceeds that Stephens makes while being Santa are donated to the Special Olympics. Stephens worked with the Special Olympics at the front desk for 22 years before retiring. He is now in his 39th year of volunteering with the Special Olympics.

“All of that money goes back to Special Olympics,” Stephens said. “I will not keep any of the money, I won’t do it. I believe in Special Olympics; I love our athletes, they are 10 steps ahead of the pros.”

A giving heart

Alongside being Santa in Uptown, Stephens plays Santa elsewhere in the community. When not playing Santa, Stephens works as a crossing guard for Colene Hoose Elementary in Normal, near his home.

While Santa and Stephens are all about giving, WGLT asked Stephens to reflect on some of the greatest gifts he has ever received.

“I have three boys – Greg, and Matt and Michael. They have given me six grandkids, and I’m proud of all three of my boys. They’ve done very well, they all three have master’s degrees,” Stephens said. “A gift that was given to me by all three of my kids was my name inscribed on the wall over at the Tribute Park at Special Olympics this past year and I was honored with that.”

But as Santa, kids ask him for all sorts of things. Cell phones and iPads, of course. But also more difficult requests, like the return of a parent, or for mom and dad to get back together. Requests for a deployed loved one to return home safely resonate deeply with Stephens, who is a Navy veteran himself.

“I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to be away from home at Christmastime, in the service. It’s not fun,” Stephens said.

Stephens himself isn’t asking for any gifts for himself. He had a serious health scare in 2017 that put him in the ICU, sedated for more than a week. He said his family was told he wouldn’t make it. But six years and lots of cardiac rehab later, Stephens is often on the move.

“Right now at my age, I don’t need anything. Every day I talk to the man upstairs, he’s given me a chance to do something else with my life and I’m doing it. My wheels are always turning to do something to help somebody else. I’m a giving person,” Stephens said.

And what if a kid asks if he’s the real Santa?

Stephens says he “works with Santa in the North Pole, and [they] get things done.”

Megan Spoerlein is a reporting intern at WGLT. She started in 2023. Megan is also studying journalism at Illinois State University.
Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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