PORT ANGELES — Donald McIntyre stood by the black-skirted nun and watched his parents drive away.
He’d spend the next few years in that Louisville, Ky., orphanage, then some time with his mother, occasionally with his father, later in boys’ homes and eventually in foster care.
Finally, a married older sister brought him to Seattle, where he finished high school.
In such a bleak beginning was a glowing Christmas spirit kindled.
Started in Marines
McIntyre — who has been a Toys for Tots Santa Claus for 45 years, the past decade in Sequim, Port Angeles and Port Townsend — wouldn’t recognize his calling until he was a Marine lying on his bunk in a San Diego, Calif., barracks.
His first sergeant ordered him to don a dress-blue uniform, white gloves, a phony beard, then attend a children’s party.
There, the youngsters who climbed onto his lap asked questions that were eerily familiar:
“Santa, when can I go home?”
“Santa, where’s my puppy?”
“Santa, if I’m adopted, can my sister come with me?”
“I realized then that these were all foster kids,” McIntyre, 75, said Tuesday.
“How did the sergeant know about me?”
He left the Marines in 1963 as a corporal in Quantico, Va., and returned to the Northwest.
It wasn’t until years later that McIntyre, then a hospital purchasing agent living in Federal Way, joined the Jaycees and received another Santa summons. The club provided annual Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners at a retirement home.
There, a barely 5-foot-tall, 90-something-year-old lady in a Santa suit told him this was her last year playing Kris Kringle and singled him out to replace her.
“Why did she pick me to be Santa?” he wondered. “That’s twice that it happened.”
Whatever the happenstance, he said, “I told my wife, ‘We can do this.’ ”
His wife, Sharlene, sewed his first costume and eventually four more, each adapted to changes in the weather.
She does not abide, however, being called “Mrs. Claus,” he said.
The couple have three grown children.
Claus at the pump
If McIntyre still needed confirmation, it came at a Chevron station near the Hood Canal Bridge, where he was wearing his red suit while he fueled his Toys for Tots van.
“A lady pulled in and came over and said, ‘We’ve just got back from their dad’s funeral. Now I’m going to have to raise these grandbabies.’ ”
The father had driven drunk into a tree, she told him.
McIntyre got out his bag of toys, gave each of the children — aged 3 to 5 — a couple of stuffed animals, then sat with them on the van’s tailgate.
“I want to assure you that your father’s up in heaven watching over you,” he said to them.
“You’ve got to take care of your grandma now.”
On Tuesday, he recalled: “I was concerned that she was giving them the message their father was a bad guy, and I was trying to turn that around.
“I hope I did.”
Most of McIntyre’s encounters aren’t so Dickensian.
Living now in Diamond Point, he starts getting into the role each November, growing out his naturally white beard that he wears for the sake of playing Santa.
“I don’t like a beard. It gets in the way of zippers and buttons,” he said in his bass voice that was made to holler, “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
McIntyre sets up Marine Corps Reserves Toys for Tots booths and donation stations across the North Olympic Peninsula starting about 10 days before Thanksgiving. His real work starts on that holiday.
From then through Christmas Eve, McIntyre roams through restaurants and businesses, shaking a raucous set of jingle bells and reminding people, “Don’t forget the cookies” on Christmas Eve.
He accepts both monetary donations and toys.
Most people in return get candy canes. A select few, though, get chunks of coal or, more lately, rocks because coal is getting hard to find.
Clenched in his teeth
McIntyre is never without his antique pipe (a seldom-seen briar called a Kruger), although he doesn’t smoke, ignoring tobacco opponents’ carping.
“The pipe is very popular,” he said.
“It brings back memories. Most times, I get very favorable comments on the pipe.”
He works long hours, catching the breakfast crowd at area eateries and appearing also during dinner time.
“I nap at the intersection of Washington Street and Sequim Avenue,” he said.
Recently, McIntyre said, “I took a little doze, and all of a sudden I see a flash — people taking pictures of Santa taking a nap.”
That evening, a customer at a Sequim restaurant gleefully showed him the photo.
McIntyre works solo by preference. He was paired once with a clown, who scared away the children, and twice with a “Mrs. Claus” who competed with him for their requests.
‘Use your toothbrush’
His spiel with each youngster is standard: He asks a child’s name, age and school.
“You’ve got to be good,” he tells them. “You’ve got to share.
“You’ve got to take care of the pets; you’re the ones who asked for them.
“Use your toothbrush. Go to bed the first time you’re told to.”
That last stipulation, he said, usually gets their mother’s nod.
McIntyre says that each summer, he grows doubtful he’ll don his velvet suit again, but Sharlene tells him, “By the time December comes around, you will be all energized and ready to go.”
And ready he is, eager to greet people, although he’ll encounter some of them 10 to 15 times before it’s time for a long winter’s nap.
“I thoroughly enjoy it and especially when someone is having a bad day. No matter how bad it is, they get a smile on their face,” he said.
Being Santa buoys his spirits.
‘Dream very big’
“Most people are fantastic. Their hearts are in the right place, and they want to do the right thing,” he said.
“The people on the Peninsula [where he’s lived for 10 years] are the most generous, the most caring and the most concerned about their community.”
And then come those bittersweet times when McIntyre learns that the child on his lap wants nothing more than adoption into a “forever family.”
“All I could tell them is that you’ve got to have faith and you’ve got to have hope and that you’ve got to dream big,” he said.
“You’ve got to dream very big.”
As big as McIntyre’s own heart?
Well, tonight is the night before Christmas.
Reporter James Casey can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at [email protected]