Arnie Havelka has played Santa for many years but he especially remembers one Christmas when a youngster said to him, 'Can you bring my dad back from Iraq? My dad got killed. Can you bring him back alive?'"
Havelka, of Minot, said he got tears "right down his eyes" when the child asked him. The youngster's wish was heartbreaking, but Havelka quickly gathered himself together and told the youngster, "Your dad was a good man, your dad was a soldier. I wish you well."
There is joy and sadness in being Santa.
Submitted Photo • This baby was asleep so Santa — Arnie Havelka — posed for a photo with the child as if he also was asleep at the Valley West Mall in Des Moines, Iowa. Havelka, of Minot, has played Santa for many years, including 16 years in Des Moines.
Havelka has been Santa every year for 45 years, with the exception of one year, and has heard many Christmas requests over that time some asked in happiness, some in sadness.
Havelka fits the part of Santa Claus well with his big white full "Santa" beard. When he's not Santa during the holidays, he's busy as the district commander of the American Legion for several counties. Havelka moved to Minot from Killdeer to help establish the home for the American Legion Club on North Hill in Minot.
Currently, Havelka is in Des Moines, Iowa, where he's Santa from early November and through Christmas Eve at the Valley West Mall. This is his 16th consecutive year of being Santa there.
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Originally from Dickinson, Havelka was a teenager when he first portrayed Santa.
"I was 16 years old," he said. "What had happened was my dad was normally the Santa on the local block. He was just busy one day and wasn't home yet so my mom said, 'I don't think Dad is going to be doing Santa today. I think you'd better get ready.'"
"So I put on the Santa suit and went to three houses for the kids in our neighborhood in Dickinson," Havelka said.
Havelka continued playing Santa in high school and in college doing a few more houses each year.
He continued to be Santa while in the Air Force. In 1971, he was in Thailand. He said the USO there was looking for someone to be Santa. Havelka told them, "I think we can put something of a suit together," he said. That year, Havelka as Santa came in on a helicopter on Christmas Eve.
The Air Force took him to other places including Minot AFB where he was Santa at the Base Exchange. He retired after 24 years in the Air Force.
When he got out of the Air Force he had a little bit of what he calls a business beard and mustache, he said. Then he ended up in the hospital for a time and his beard, which grows fast, grew a little bit long. He didn't play Santa that year but seeing his full beard, his daughter Latoya had an idea. She told him he should be a professional Santa Claus.
As it turned out, Havelka went to Glasgow, Mont., for a Santa Claus convention. He said a photo was taken of him standing and another of him sitting. He also had to provide a resume of his work. He said the information was sent to the mall association. That group looks over the Santa Claus photos and resumes.
"But probably the biggest thing they do is they call you and want to hear you say, 'ho, ho, ho.' That's how I got started," Havelka said. He was with the mall association for two years.
Havelka, his wife Mamie and their daughter Latoya decided they should set up their own company. Since it was Latoya's idea, Havelka said they named the company LT Characters Entertainment of Minot.
"Latoya is the CEO of our company and Mamie does the finance. I'm the manual labor guy," he said.
The first year of their company Havelka went to the Valley West Mall in Des Moines, Iowa. He's been going there every year since.
Havelka gets calls from other places asking him to be their Santa but he likes the people and the arrangements in Des Moines.
"The mall is good, the motel and grocery stores are within walking distance," he said.
Over his years in Des Moines he's gotten to know many people who return each year to have their photos taken with him.
"It's just nice to stay here," he said, adding that he's seeing next generations of people coming to see him.
Havelka goes to Des Moines about two weeks before Thanksgiving and is there through Christmas Eve. He is Santa every day from 10 in the morning until 8 at night, with the exception of one day a week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
He said the line of people waiting to see him will get as long as, for example, from the clock all the way to Penneys at Dakota Square in Minot. He said the average line is usually an hour but it can be more. But he said the people patiently wait their turn.
As for Santa (Havelka), he said, "I just have fun."
Havelka said he doesn't really have one favorite Santa story. "There's so many good stories as far as 'I want this for Christmas.'"
He said he's had people bring 2-day-old babies directly from the hospital to be photographed with him. He said the family lived in the country and it was their only opportunity to get to the mall before they took the baby home.
"On the other side of the coin, I've had a 92-year-old see me. The lady said she could never remember sitting with Santa Claus," he said.
"I had an 83-year-old guy that came and wanted to have a picture with me. He said, 'You know what? I remember sitting on Santa Claus when I was 4 years old. I have not seen anyone who looked like a real one like you do since that time,'" Havelka said.