Santa did it for the love

Wednesday, December 16, 1998

Santa is retiring. He's hanging up the tailored red suit, the big belt with the silver buckle and the coal-black boots he polished with care.

After 14 Christmases, his last day is Friday. This year, someone else will have to visit the sick kids during the holidays at Children's Hospital.

Frank Knapke, Children's safety director, filled me in about Santa's retirement during a recent "Lunch with Cliff." Frank is Santa. "I've skipped four retirement dates just to stick around the hospital," he told me. "I had to draw the line somewhere. I'm 64 and in good health. So, this was the year."

After working at Children's for 30 years, the first 18 as a medical researcher and the last 12 as safety director, Frank is also retiring from his paying job. At the close of business Friday, he'll walk out the door with his jolly old alter ego.

Frank normally takes a working lunch in a narrow booth at the hospital's coffee shop. He talks shop with a group of Children's vice presidents. Between rounds of jawing about how bad the Bengals are, they work on solving minor problems and plan for the next big project.

On Monday, the VPs were in a board meeting. There were no new projects for Frank. He's counting the days until he retires. So, he felt free to reminisce about Christmases past. And so "Lunch with Cliff" turned into a lunch with Santa.

"When you play Santa for sick children, you do some serious soul searching," Frank said. "Every year it got harder and harder."

He remembered the nurse who asked him to put on his Santa suit during the first week of November several years ago. Two little girls suffering from leukemia were having a Christmas party. It was a little early for Christmas. But by the time December rolled around, it might be too late for the little girls.

Frank put on his suit. The two girls laughed and smiled when he walked into their room.

They did not ask him for the gift of good health. Or long life. "In all my years of playing Santa," Frank said, "no child ever asked me to make it better."

All the girls wanted was a hug.

Two Christmases ago, Frank dressed up as Santa and paid his annual visit to the intensive care unit. He told every child he saw, "Santa loves you."

Frank was doing all right until he saw a little boy who looked like one of his grandsons. Santa told the boy he loved him and stayed for a while before disappearing into the night. Santa went back to his office, took off his beard and his wig. And cried.

A co-worker heard Frank crying. Poking his head into the safety director's office, the co-worker asked: "Why do you do this to yourself?"

During the telling of this story, Frank's ruddy complexion turned bright red. As he grabbed a tattered paper napkin to dab his eyes, he spoke with a catch in his voice.

"I did it for the moms and dads as much as for the kids," Frank said. "I wanted them to know someone cares for them, not as sick kids and the parents of sick children, but as people."

Tears soaked the thin napkin as he said: "Been there. Done that."

Frank played Santa in memory of his daughter, Susan. She died after her car slid on a patch of ice and crashed on the first day of spring in 1983.

The third of four girls born to Frank and his wife, Merle, Susan was 23. She loved Christmas. Her father kept her love alive by playing Santa.

For 14 Christmases, he wore a Santa suit in the most difficult of all settings, a hospital room with a sick child in the bed. He wished a Merry Christmas to children who might not see another holiday. Through it all, he kept smiling, never letting on that Santa once lost a child. To me, this took a huge measure of courage. To Frank, it was just a matter of love.

"I love kids," he said. "That's what the world is all about. I don't know if there's a heaven or a hell. But I do know that what we do in our lifetime our kids remember and pass on. That's a monument to your life."

That's a tribute to Susan, and to Frank, the Children's Hospital Santa.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.