When Don Storbakken retired in 1999 as an inspector for the North Dakota State Seed Department, he decided to let his hair and beard growwhereupon a remarkable transformation occurred. Storbakken became a dead-ringer for Santa Claus.
He already had a cherry-like nose, a ruddy complexion, a moderate paunch, wore bifocals perched on the tip of his nose, and had the personality of a jolly old elf when it came to children, so long white hair was all it took.
Now he says the only thing better than the joy he spreads by playing Santa Claus is the joy he receives from smiling children.
Its like their smiles open up their whole insides, says Storbakken, 60, of Thompson, N.D. (pop. 971) Its like a sunbeam.
And the joy Storbakken brings extends beyond Christmas; it happens year-round, in or out of costume. Children are delighted when they spot Storbakken on the street. They poke at their parents, point, whisper, and then shyly wave. And, of course, smile. Hes regularly greeted, by young and old alike, with Hi, Santa, or hell hear comments like, Youre a little early arent you, Santa?
Being a jolly fellow, Storbakken plays along, sometimes responding that hes checking his list to see if theyve been naughty or nice. It spreads some joy, he says.
But the requirements to play Santa Claus go beyond appearance.
His character is perfect, says Mark Erickson, marketing director for Columbia Mall in nearby Grand Forks where Storbakken now works as a Santa during the holiday season. Hes cheerful, warm, friendly, always smiling. One of the moms even talked about how he had the sparkle in his eye.
Erickson adds: You have to have someone who loves to visit with kids, who really listens to them.
Storbakken has a lot of experience in that department. In addition to the five children he and his wife, Arlene, raised, scores of youngsters have come through Arlenes in-home day care service over the last 21 years.
Pre-schoolers, taken by his bubbly demeanor, often favor Storbakken over toys as a preferred plaything. Its not uncommon for kids to climb on his lap and use his frame like playground equipment.
Dons a natural draw, Arlene says. When he plays with them, he gets right down to their level, physically and otherwise.
Storbakkens soft spot for children often leads him beyond the call of duty. On Christmas Eve 1999, for example, he suited up and put his own holiday activities temporarily on hold to distribute gifts to the five grandchildren of a friend, Joyce McMenamy.
Weve tried to get Santas before, but theyre usually unavailable on Christmas Eve, McMenamy says. You cant expect them to give up their own Christmas Eve.
But Don volunteered out of the goodness of his heart, she adds. The kids were just delighted.
Of all the things Ive done in my life, this is the most satisfying, Storbakken says. You look at the kids faces, and you know how they feel.