BY NATHAN PAYNE
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — How do you eulogize a man who meant as much to the community as he did to his family and friends?
Sarah, Leah and Aaron Draplin wrestled with that question Tuesday afternoon while they tried to organize thoughts they might address this morning at St. Francis Church during a memorial service for their father, Jim Draplin.
Some people knew him as Jim or Draplin, others knew him as Santa Jim but to thousands of children, he was simply Santa Claus.
He was a man who lived his life to give his gifts to the world.
The 70-year-old machine tool salesman always had a joke ready to lighten a mood or break the ice. He never shaved his long white beard. And he never forgot a child's name.
"I never saw him without a beard," laughed his wife of 43 years, Lauren. Her husband looked so similar to classic renditions of Santa Claus that he would attract stares from children in the middle of the summer while wearing shorts and his trademark "watermelon shirt."
He didn't take offense, either, often shooting a wink and a nod to the curious child or quietly whispering a "be good," to the awestruck youngster.
His house in Lake Ann surrounded his son Aaron with reminders on Tuesday while he talked about his father. A wall clad with a collection of vintage beer steins, a yard full of custom bird feeders and a world-class collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia all bombarded Jim's 40-year-old son.
But it is his downstairs workshop that says the most about Jim.
Shelves bustle with parts and pieces he had scavenged during the past 20 years. A flick of the light switch near the door to the small room sets off a rainbow of moving light cast from a slow-turning party light overhead.
"He knew where everything is at," Sarah said while running a hand over the green desk chair that sits at the center of the room where her father sat to work on his projects.
A pile of partially-finished wooden toys sat on a workbench nearby. Jim was known for his custom-made toys and constant and thoughtful gifts.
Sarah noticed her name written on a plastic grocery bag that hung from the ceiling near the door as she moved to leave the room. It was a small lampshade decorated with colorful pictures of shoes.
It was a gift, one her father never had the chance to give.
It's just the kind of thing Jim would bring out at just the right time. She left it hanging where Jim placed it.
Jim never wanted to let anything go to waste, said Lauren.
It was probably the result of being the child of parents who struggled through the Great Depression. But he often argued that he wasn't a hoarder.
And he probably wasn't. He collected many things, but gave away just as many, maybe more.
His father died when he was 15, forcing the teenager to grow up quickly. Jim began working young and helped support his mother until her death.
Despite life's struggles, Jim always found ways to give, Lauren said.
"He refused to let it get him down," she said.
It wasn't until sometime in the 1980s that Jim really found that niche. He had always been a bigger guy, but after moving his family to Central Lake, Jim found what would be his outlet for the following three decades. It was a perfect fit.
From the first time he put on a Santa Claus costume, Jim Draplin was on a mission.
He appeared at a few public events, made special appearances for private and corporate clients and eventually became the Santa who helped Traverse City kickoff the holidays with an appearance in the annual holiday parade downtown.
Along the way, he began to find ways to turn his natural talent for playing the big man into a positive for those who often go without.
First, in Central Lake, Jim would collect the names of the poorest families in town from the school district.
"We didn't have anything then, but people would donate to him," Lauren said.
Jim would put on his suit and deliver the donations to the most needy families in the community before Christmas. He continued with the giving after moving to Traverse City. He would charge $150 per hour to appear at parties and for special events. But he never kept any of the money, Lauren said.
Nomatter his family's financial situation, Jim would turn over his entire season's earnings to Father Fred.
Aaron remembers trying to convince his dad to keep some of the money a few years ago when the economy made budgets tight.
"I said, 'This year you could use the money,'" Aaron said. "But he insisted, 'This is the right thing to do, these people need it.'"
It was an argument Aaron knew he never would win.
But sometimes giving gifts and money simply weren't enough. There were times Jim was called in to make a special summer appearance for a terminally-ill child. Or those times when Hospice workers asked for an extra visit. Jim always obliged, insisting that, "These people don't know anybody, but they know Santa," Lauren said. "Everyone was convinced he was Santa."
"He always found the great in everything," Aaron added.
"He was bigger than life," Sarah said. "We shared him with everybody."
Despite all the gifts he gave during the decades, the greatest gift Jim Draplin ever gave was himself.