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Remembering Guelph's favourite Santa Claus

In this Journeys feature we remember Bob Berry, who brought the joy of Christmas to young and old alike for more than four decades playing Santa Claus

Christmas won’t be the same this year for the Berry family and many others in the community without a visit from the jolly old man himself Robert 'Bob' Berry, who passed away on Oct. 17 at the age of 79.

“Different holidays are going to be hard,” said his daughter Janice McMullen. “I just had my birthday and I cried five or six times that day because it was my first birthday without him. Christmas is going to be hard and his birthday.”

For more than 40 years Berry donned the red suit and cap and spread the joy of Christmas wherever he went. 

“In the beginning he had a fake beard and fake wig but as time went on, he grew his beard and he was au naturel,” said McMullen.

The role came naturally to Berry and when he was in costume, he didn’t break character.

“He was always in character,” said his granddaughter, Keely Douglas. “He never broke it even for me and my brother. He was always Santa. It wasn’t Pops, which is what we called him.”

He never missed an opportunity to play the part.

“Even last year at Wellington Terrace in long-term care he put his Santa suit on for the rest of the residents,” said McMullen. “Somebody wheeled him around in his wheelchair. He loved it.”

Berry, the son of Billy and Alice Berry, was born in 1942 in a two-bedroom house on Brockville Avenue in Guelph.

“They had five brothers and one sister in a two-bedroom house,” said McMullen. “My dad was a hard worker and a funny guy. He was always joking and he loved kids.”

He was also a loving father to his two children Bob and Janice and a devoted husband to his wife Marion from the day the two exchanged their vows in 1966.

“They were married for 55 years,” said McMullen. “Oct. 8 was their 55th wedding anniversary.”

Berry supported his family by working in the shipping and receiving department at St. Joseph’s Hospital on Westmount Road for 42 years.

“He was their longest-serving employee, and he only had a Grade 8 education,” said McMullen. “He started in the food department at St. Joe's then went to shipping and receiving.”

It was during his time at St. Joseph’s Hospital that he took on the role of St. Nick.

“They were looking for a Santa to do the Christmas party for the kids and dad was a jolly fellow,” said McMullen. “He had the laugh so, they approached him and that’s when he started doing it.” 

Of course, Santa needs his little helpers. 

“It turned into a family affair,” said McMullen. “My brother was the elf, and I was the little miss. One year my cousin had a t-roof Mustang, and my dad was standing on the seat coming down the hill at St. Joe's to the kid’s Christmas party. It was just awesome to see the kids’ reaction.”

It wasn’t long before Santa Bob and the Berry Christmas crew became fixtures at club and company Christmas parties across the community including the Sunrise Therapeutic Riding & Learning Centre in Puslinch.

“He loved doing Santa at Sunrise with the special-needs kids,” said McMullen. “That really brought him joy and he brought them joy. He never missed a year in over 20 years.”

Berry played drums in the Salvation Army Band and, when he was young, he travelled with them to England to perform.

“He just loved band music and even at the Santa Claus parade, he would always be moving and marching with the band,” McMullen said. “He wasn’t the Santa in the parade, but an hour after it finished my dad would go to Wimpy’s Diner as Santa to greet all the kids.”

Berry stayed active in retirement and his alter ego was always ready to spring into action.

“He was a greeter at Walmart for years and with his beard, his real beard, the kids would just be staring in wonder,” said McMullen. “He would tell them, ‘I’m watching you. You need to behave.’“

Her grandfather’s social and playful nature is something Douglas will remember well.

“We went to so many Storm games and he was always the one cheering for the other team, but it was for the fans,” she said. “It was so the fans got louder. He would tease them and then he would yell, ‘Go Storm’. It’s just crazy how many people he has impacted and knew him. Everywhere we went he knew someone.”

She is grateful that she got to see him before he died and that he was able to meet and hold her four-month-old son, his first and only great grandson, Klayton. It is one of many memories she will cherish of her grandfather and the joy he brought to everyone especially at this time of year.

“He was always there,” she said. “No matter what he was always there. He counted down the days on his little calendars that come from the vet clinic.That was his job. He looked forward to that, to get out and see everyone and do something he really enjoyed.”