There’s a certain twinkle in Cantey Pearce’s eyes when he tells the stories that flow from the better part of five decades of portraying the holiday season’s largest personality — Santa.
There’s the time a nervous young man pulled out a diamond ring and, to the surprise — and horror, perhaps — of his girlfriend, proposed to her on bent knee in front of both Santa and the throngs of eager little faces waiting in line to see him. As the tale goes, she said yes, though things were palpable for a moment.
There’s the bald man who asked for hair year after year — “He had about as much hair on the top of his head as you got in the palm of your hand,” Cantey said — and the woman who wanted her pet boa constrictor to share in the timeless tradition of the annual Santa photos.
This Santa, it turns out, doesn’t do snakes.
Cantey, 75, has held a 2-day-old baby on its way home from the hospital and convinced a 96-year-old woman that, yes, indeed, he was real, but only after she pulled his beard and poked him a few times.
He has listened to the children of families who clearly didn’t have the means to deal with Christmas and were hoping upon hope that Santa’s generosity was more than the stuff of holiday jingles. He remembers the teen girl who wanted nothing for herself — but a winter coat for her mother.
For the skeptics and scrooges out there who don’t share in the childlike magic that surrounds Santa Claus lore, know this: Not just anyone can don a heavy red suit and sit patiently for hours on end as the young and old, human and otherwise, crawl into or are plopped onto your lap and pull at your beard — and your heartstrings.
That takes a special kind of person. Having a real white beard is just a bonus.
If you patronized Cloverleaf or Southpark malls or Chesterfield Towne Center over the last 30 or more years during the holidays — or if you dined aboard Richmond’s dinner cruise paddle boat, the Annabel Lee, during its 15 years here — chances are you saw Cantey.
Well, you saw Santa.
A native of South Carolina, Cantey came to Richmond in 1973 when he was transferred here by DuPont, where he worked as an operator for nearly 40 years. His first experience as Santa, however, happened at age 19. He was working at a McDonald’s and attending Spartanburg Junior College, when the man who was supposed to show up to play Santa didn’t. Cantey was handed a suit. He wasn’t given an option. He handed out candy canes that day to all the kids who showed up for burgers and fries.
With the exception of a handful of years when life’s chaos or health issues kept him from it, he’s played the part. In his younger days, the beard was glued on and the suits were odd-fitting rentals. During his latter years at DuPont, he’d save all of his vacation time for the end of the year so he could take care of his Santa responsibilities. His wife, Henrietta, eventually made a suit for him. Cantey retired in 2007 and immediately did something he’d always wanted to do but couldn’t because of his job: He grew out his beard.
The suit his wife made for him was retired just a few months ago as Cantey made an investment in his future: He had two new suits custom-made for him, one with a long coat and another with a short coat.
That mischievous twinkle returns when Cantey remembers those years when his colleagues — who didn’t know then that he was Santa — brought their children or grandchildren to his malls for a visit. To their surprise, he’d call them by their names and ask them why they weren’t working that night, then delight in their shocked reactions.
“I’d tell them, ‘You know Santa knows a little bit about everybody,’” he said. “I’ve done that with several people over the years.”
The stories roll out with ease, but ask him why he does what he does and the stories stop. Cantey grows quiet, then says: “It’s enjoyable meeting people and talking to people.”
He explains how he’s learned to handle the questions from children about a lack of chimney access at their house, to repeat out loud what the child wants for Christmas for parents who haven’t been privy to that information and desperately need some help, and how to steer children away from toys or items that may be inappropriate for them.
Cantey, of Chesterfield County, is a working Santa, but he’s not getting rich during the holidays, he said. What he earns takes care of his suit’s maintenance and a few bills here and there. But there’s a lot more than money tied up in that bright red suit with the soft Angora-like white fur trim.
“Not everybody can do it,” Cantey said. “You have to be patient and not in a hurry — if you try to rush the kids through, it’s going to take the enjoyment out of it.”
The dialysis machine beeped and Cantey removed an earbud that provides the sound from a small TV positioned in front of his chair.
“Best sound in the world — it means I’m done,” he quipped out loud. In late 2014, Cantey suffered two heart attacks and nearly lost his life. As if that weren’t bad enough, doctors also found that his kidneys weren’t functioning properly. He started dialysis then and continues now, three times a week, first thing in the morning.
He follows dialysis with a visit to his beloved Henrietta, who’s been in a nursing home for more than a decade. They knew each other in high school (she was voted “most likely to succeed” by her peers), and after first marriages for both of them, reconnected in January 1970. They married at the end of March — not even three months later.
He visits her faithfully every single day.
On a recent visit, as a cold wind whipped outside her window, Henrietta remarked that she knew what she was getting into when her husband pulled out the Santa suit all those years ago.
Come each November, she said, she knew she wouldn’t see much of him until after Christmas.
But, “I just knew I had to share him,” she added.
When he’s not playing Santa, and even when he is, Cantey’s other post is a high school football field press room. Like Santa, high school football has been part of his life for decades.
Cantey has been a high school referee with the Central Virginia Football Officials Association for more than four decades, both on the field as an umpire and, more recently, in the press box taking care of the game clock. He’s mentored countless coaches and players and, despite his health challenges, has no intention of stopping anytime soon.
Mead Shore is the association’s supervisor of officials, and has known Cantey for at least 35 years, he said.
“He’s 110 percent dedicated to doing what he’s doing (and) he’s very knowledgeable,” Shore said, adding that Cantey is “never not available.”
The schools covered under the association span a large swath of Virginia, from near the North Carolina border to Caroline County, but “any area we cover, all I have to do is ask and he’s gone,” Shore said.
No longer at the local malls, Cantey can now be found around town during the holidays at places such as Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. He makes appearances at private parties, schools and other events. He once showed up at a rehearsal dinner for a December wedding.
Having Santa as a father has been, to some degree, a lesson in the power of the human spirit, said Chris Pearce, Cantey’s younger son. He’s witnessed his father in costume interacting with the public, but the man underneath doesn’t change when the suit comes off, he said.
That dedication to people, both strangers and his own family, is what he admires most about his dad, Pearce said. Whether it’s offering a teachable moment on the football field or listening to a squirmy toddler babble on about his Christmas wish list, Cantey treats each situation — and each person — with the same degree of importance.
“In so many ways, there’s just that giving spirit,” Pearce said, so playing Santa “is just natural, (and) it didn’t matter how old you were, how big you were, how small you were, Santa’s always got a strong enough leg for everybody.”
Pearce said he’s been asked by his father repeatedly if he’ll put on the Santa suit.
Simply put, Pearce said, “I could never measure up.”