Our Holiday Hero
He first put on the red suit as a teenager in Cicero at the request of his mom, the head of the PTA. “We need a Santa? Will you do it?” she asked him, even though he needed padding for plumpness and, of course, a white beard for facsimile. Mom must have known something.
It was his destiny to be Santa. He “grew” into the role literally, or, shall we day, figuratively. Padding was no longer needed by the time he took on the role on a consistent basis. His hair also had turned white, and his beard came in white and fluffy. He looks so much like Santa that countless times when he’s in public in regular clothes children point and their jaws drop.
Santa Bob always knows what to say. “Why are you here?” a child at a store or restaurant will stammer. “I’m making sure everything is OK.” Or, he says, “You know about the list and checking it twice? This is No. 1.”
Santa Bob, whose second home is in Elgin, also often passes out a wooden coin that says either “Caught being good” or “True believer.” He asks the child what he or she wants for Christmas and tells the child to place the coin under the tree, as the parent listens in and quickly figures out what to purchase before Dec. 25.
Bob Hildreth worked as a teacher and principal in Cicero, St. Charles, Lyons and Blue Island before retiring in 2013. He formerly lived in Downers Grove. During the holidays, his home is “decorated from top to bottom,” including no less than four trees, says Carol, his wife. Santa Bob works about 50 events a year including a summer gig in the 4th of July parade for Hinsdale. He visits children’s hospitals, retirement centers and park districts. He’s the main attraction of Polar Expresses and straps on blades for Skate with Santa. He poses with pets for a fundraiser for the Elgin police department and hops on a red Harley with a S. Claus license plate for the ABATE Toy and Food Run in Elburn.
Mrs. Claus, conveniently played by Carol, is often at his side. She’s especially needed when young children shriek and cry at the sight of the strange-looking fellow in the red suit. “I say, ‘Go to grandma.’ They’re not afraid of her,” explains Santa Bob.
Mr. and Mrs. Claus were also scheming partners years ago when it came to their four children. The family spent Christmas Day downtown seeing the Loop Christmas windows and feasting in the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s. They always took two cars so gifts were under the tree when they arrived home. Once two of their children somehow “caught” Santa in the act, glimpsing his backside as he placed the gifts under the tree. The children hurried to tell their parents. By the time they got to Dad, there he was still snoozing on the couch.
It’s the children they meet outside the home that make Christmas special for Santa Bob and Mrs. Claus. One year, at Shriner’s Children Hospital in Chicago, they met 9-year-old “Amy,” who had been at the hospital most of her life. “She really, really wanted glitter slime,” recalls Santa Bob. So she got it that day. But she soon gave it to another girl who was crying because there was no glitter slime left.
Those kinds of experiences, that spirit of generosity, inspires even the person who epitomizes gift-giving. “We need to always remember the real reason for Christmas,” says Santa Bob. “We need to pray and help one another. We’re all in this together, no matter our race, color or creed. Let’s enjoy life and take care of each other.”