Paul and Mary Charbonneau love Christmas. They don’t just enjoy the holiday, though, they live it, transforming into Santa and Mrs. Claus each season.
Paul started playing Santa more than 45 years ago while still in high school at Rogers. He was the Bon Marché’s official Santa for several seasons. It was a natural inclination, coming from a large family and always being around a lot of children. Christmas was always a magical time for his family.
“I’ve always been a big kid and I look forward to being Santa all year,” says Paul, who, during the rest of the year, works for the city water department. “There’s a real responsibility to it. When I’m dressed as Santa Claus, I’m Santa all the time.”
There was a time, not long ago, when Paul didn’t need any extra padding to play Santa. He weighed close to 400 pounds, had health issues, and needed to replace both of his knees. He’s “skinny” now, and while he says it’s “not very Santa-like,” he stays in shape riding his bike and lifting weights.
The season always kicks off for Santa and Mrs. Claus the weekend after Thanksgiving with a “Santa Claws” fundraiser benefiting 30 different local nonprofit and animal rescues. It’s a cause close to their hearts, as Mary works closely with the Washington Basset Rescue, and the couple has two of the cute floppy-eared hounds of their own.
Santa and Mrs. Claus make stops around Spokane at charity events and nonprofit events bringing the Christmas spirit to kids of all ages. Often, before Santa arrives, Paul will ask the parents to have their children write Santa a letter. He’ll commit it to memory so that it’s pure magic when Santa knows everything about them, from where they go to school to their pet’s name and of course, what’s on their wish list. For one little girl it was all about a jar of pickles.
“It’s one of those rare situations where kids really just engage, their eyes light up, they start talking and they’re involved in the moment,” Mary says. “It’s a part of childhood that is being lost faster and faster.
“When people are around Santa and Mrs. Claus, they’re in the holiday spirit and having a good time.”
The final stop for Santa and Mrs. Claus each season is Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital where they visit with young patients facing every kind of health crisis you can imagine. Those are times that really tug at their hearts.
“We’ve had children ask for a new kidney or to be put on the transplant list. But often they’re not asking for things for themselves,” Mary says. “It makes you realize how blessed you are, when a five or six year old tells Santa that their family is ‘really worried about me,’ and could he please help them to not be so stressed out and be able to get a little more sleep.”
In the true spirit of the season, the Charbonneaus donate any funds they generate to local charities. “It’s really something that we do to serve our community and give back during the holidays,” Mary says. “We really love helping create Christmas memories, and playing Santa and Mrs. Claus really makes our holidays merry and bright.”
“I feel fortunate that I’m in a position to do this,” Paul says. “It’s hard to describe the fun—it really makes you feel great.”
You might have heard the adage that life is like a pizza. “It could be round, it could be square; but you’ll enjoy it most, when it’s something that you share.” That pretty much sums things up for Rob Harrison, owner of McClain’s Pizzeria in North Spokane.
Harrison’s decision to buy a pizza joint wasn’t because he needed more “dough,” but rather he just needed something to keep him busy in retirement. A math teacher for 37 years, all but four years in Spokane Public Schools and 29 years at Rogers High School, Harrison remains in contact with many former students. One is Mike Zinkgraf, a major in the U.S. Air Force, who is now his partner in the pizza venture.
Pizza was something Harrison already knew about—he had been a regular at McClain’s, and as a teenager, one of his first jobs was as a dishwasher and busboy at Geno’s Pizza, one of the first places in Spokane selling pies, opening downtown right after WWII.
It’s so easy to order a pizza and have it delivered to your home these days, you might not think about going out to eat at a pizza place. But Harrison says the atmosphere at McClain’s is one of the ingredients for its success.
“Our customers and staff are like family,” he says. “I hire a lot of college and high school kids and make sure to schedule their shifts around their sports and extracurricular activities.”
McClain’s also makes fundraising and community service a priority. The Mt. Spokane wrestling team recently did a “take over” where they helped out in the restaurant to earn a portion of the night’s proceeds, and Harrison put on another fundraiser for one of his own employees undergoing a kidney transplant.
“One of the reasons I’m in the business is because I want to give back,” Harrison says.
A former wrestling and track coach, Harrison is a big supporter of local athletics. Among his employees are cheerleaders from Mead High School, a member of the community college volleyball team,and even a couple of high school and college soccer coaches. McClain’s also hosts the Whitworth Pirates Coaches Show on KSBN 1230 AM radio.
McClain’s is known for hand-tossed pizzas loaded with fresh ingredients. “We don’t have a machine for rolling out the dough, so there’s a bit of a show with it being tossed and stretched out,” Harrison says. “We also have a secret ingredient that we use that makes a difference in the flavor.”
Harrison’s favorite among the 18 different pizzas on the menu is the McClain’s Combo (Canadian bacon, pepperoni, sausage, mushroom, black olives and red onions). He’s also partial to the Buffalo Cheesy Chicken Bread and the chicken wings doused in house-made “Mac Daddy” hot sauce.
Right now, Harrison is hands-on at McClain’s, but hopes to make time to do some traveling—whether New York, Washington DC or Italy, you can be sure that sampling the locally made pizza will be part of the trip.
“I might find a combination of pizza that I really love and I’d bring it back for our customers,” Harrison says. “I believe you learn more by going out and experiencing things—and I certainly like good food.”
Sam and Joe Elsom have not missed a Washington State University home football game in 45 years.
“We’re practically obsessed,” says Sam, who attended WSU from 1959-1963 when it was still known as WSC. His father and brother were Cougs, and two of his and Jo’s four children are WSU graduates—they even have a daughter-in-law who graduated from WSU.
The Elsom’s first game together was the 1970 Apple Cup. It’s a special memory because it also marks their wedding anniversary. The die hard Coug couple, who met when they worked at the same phone company, exchanged vows in a church near Joe Albi Stadium and walked back down the aisle just in time to make the kickoff against the rival Huskies. No, Jo didn’t wear her wedding dress to the game—as she recalls, it was freezing cold.
The Elsoms winter in sunny Mexico, but they’re no fair-weather fans when it comes to Cougar football. They were at the 1992 “Snow Bowl” to watch quarterback Drew Bledsoe pass for two touchdowns, including a 44-yard scoring strike to Phillip Bobo who made the catch while sliding into a snow bank. Another time it was snowing so hard the goal line had to be plowed to confirm a touchdown by running back Andrew Jones.
“The snow played such a big enough part in our memories that now we watch the games from the Coaches Club where it’s nice and warm,” Sam says.
“We’re still shouting and giving hive-fives whenever we get a touchdown,” Jo says.
The camaraderie is a big part of what the Elsoms enjoy about being members of Cougar Nation. They’ve tailgated with their motorhome and gotten to know many of the coaches and players. Over their 48 years together, the Elsoms have travelled back to New York to watch the Cougars and quarterback Jack Thompson, “the Throwin’ Samoan,” play ARMY, and have followed the team to the Alamo Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Sun Bowl, Copper Bowl and twice to the Rose Bowl.
“We’ve run into Coug fans all over the world,” Sam says. “Once, we took a bus from Cancun to Mérida, the capital city in Yucatan with over a million people; there was a guy, working at one of the local hotels, who gave us directions and turned out to be a WSU grad.”
The Elsoms’ home on Sacheen Lake, south of Deer Valley, has the cougar logo embossed on the rug, and the bedroom closet is filled with WSU sweaters and T-shirts. They keep a condo in downtown Spokane where they go on home game weekends and join up with their friends on the Cougar bus down to Pullman.
Sam has had two things on his bucket list. One was to watch the Cougs play in the Rose Bowl (which they did in 1998 and 2003) and the second is to see the completion of Spokane’s north/south freeway—which, if it stays on schedule, will be sometime around his 81st birthday.
One thing is certain—the Elsoms are Coug fans for life.
“We root for two teams,”Sam says. “The Cougars and whoever is playing the Huskies.”
Up at the North Pole, it’s the busiest time of the year. At Rockwood South Hill retirement community, a group of toymakers led by Jim Dillon, are just as involved, crafting beautiful Christmas gifts for children in need.
Dillon has always been the handyman sort, fixing and repairing things around the house. Woodworking, particularly building furniture, is one of his longtime hobbies. When he retired from his career as a technician with Pacific Bell Telephone Company, he and his wife moved from Vancouver, Washington, to Spokane and joined up with a group of fellow woodworkers living at the retirement community. It wasn’t long after that Rockwood South Hill expanded their workshop with new lighting and tools.
The “Rockwood Elves,” as they’re known, put in more than 200 hours to create the 75 wooden toys—trucks and cars and cradles complete with dolls and blankets, they will donate to children through Volunteers of America.
“Since all the toys are made from wood, they have to be cut out, sanded, fitted and glued together,” Dillon says. “I really like working with wood and enjoy working with the men and ladies in our little group. I look forward to getting together and working on the projects every week. If we were selling the toys, it would take all the fun out of it. We’re doing it to be helpful and useful to others.”
Being of service to others is part of Dillon’s nature. Earlier in his life, he went on a 10-year mission trip with his wife and kids to Liberia, West Africa. Recalling that experience, he says he got back as much as he gave.
“Some of it was great fun and some of it was really challenging,” he says. “It’s hard to sum up something that is so very different from what we have here in the United States. In Liberia, since the coup in 1986, they don’t have electricity, and if you want power, you have to generate it yourself. We Americans get upset if we have to wait a minute or two in a checkout line. I came back different in that way.”
There’s no rest for a busy elf. Dillon and his fellow toymakers will start back to work on next year’s delivery right after Christmas. They also make time for their own woodworking projects, including cabinets and tables for use in the shop. Dillon continues to be the resident handyman, fixing things for people around the community. It might be a chair with a wobbly leg or putting back together a prized collectible, like a detailed wooden motorcycle that had been dropped and broken.
“God created wood,” Dillon says, “and I thoroughly enjoy looking at it, thinking about it and shaping it.”