Knoxville, TN (CBS Local) – For those posing as Santa Claus in malls and hospitals or anywhere else this holiday season, they have extra incentives to be good at their jobs: they get to make kids smile, and in rare cases, it can make their life.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen isn’t just any Santa, either, he’s a Hall of Fame Santa. For starters, he’s 6’1″ and 310 pounds, naturally looking the part. He needs no outside help for facial hair, as his Santa beard is authentic and real and righteous, other than the occasional bleach to ensure it stays pure white.
For a man who inspires so much joy after working his day job of mechanical engineering and the president of Packing Seals & Engineering, one day he was left in shambles after visiting a sick child in the hospital.
“I cried all the way home,” Schmitt-Matzen told this touching story to Sam Venable of the Knoxville Sun Sentinel. “I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive.”
Schmitt-Matzen went to the hospital, down the ICU.
“I’d just gotten home from work that day,” said Schmitt-Matzen. “The telephone rang. It was a nurse I know who works at the hospital. She said there was a very sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus. I told her, ‘OK, just let me change into my outfit.’ She said, ‘There isn’t time for that. Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now.’ ”
He got straight on his way, which would later prove to be a vital decision.
“She’d bought a toy from (the TV show) PAW Patrol and wanted me to give it to him,”said Schmitt-Matzen. “I sized up the situation and told everyone, ‘If you think you’re going to lose it, please leave the room. If I see you crying, I’ll break down and can’t do my job.’ ”
Schmitt-Matzen recalls the touching story with the boy, uninterrupted.
“When I walked in, he was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep. I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my Number One elf!
“He looked up and said, ‘I am?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“I gave him the present. He was so weak he could barely open the wrapping paper. When he saw what was inside, he flashed a big smile and laid his head back down.
‘“They say I’m gonna die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’
“I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’
“He said, ‘Sure!’
“When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.
“He said, ‘They will?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’
“I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him. Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could.”
He couldn’t contain his emotions.
“I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I’ve seen my share of (stuff). But I ran by the nurses’ station bawling my head off. I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it.’”
It was so heart-wrenching for Schmitt-Matzen, he considering retiring from his Santa duties.
“I’m just not cut out for this,” said Schmitt-Matzen. But he isn’t out of the game yet. “When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold. It made me realize the role I have to play. For them and for me.”