WINTERSVILLE - It all started at Starkdale Presbyterian Church in 1963.
The church had a Santa Claus outfit, but no one to wear it that year since the resident Old St. Nick had moved from the area, leaving the children's party in the lurch.
Enter Paul Visyak, a member of Starkdale who stepped up to the plate for the "Ho-Ho-Ho" duties.
SANTA RETIRING — Paul Visyak has played Santa Claus for 50 years, serving as Old St. Nick at schools, in parades, for group parties, at churches and nursing homes and at private homes. This year will be his final Merry Christmas run as the 85-year-old Wintersville man is retiring. -- Janice Kiaski
"I volunteered to take the job to be Santa Claus for the children of the church," said Visyak, a Wintersville resident.
"I thought I'd like to be Santa Claus, so I did the Santa Claus job with the kids and then several people started asking if I'd make a home visit," he said of how the one-time volunteering offer translated into repeat performances.
Fast forward 50 years, and Visyak is hanging up his white beard, black boots and red Santa suit for one final Merry Christmas run.
It's been five decades of delighting thousands of area children - generations of them - listening to their gift requests and admonishing them to be good little boys and girls or suffer the consequences of "stones in their stockings."
"I'll tell you what," Visyak said from his living room sofa where the nearby coffee table showcased scrapbooks and framed photos documenting his annual role, "after 50 years of doing Santa Claus, many times I felt like I really was Santa Claus. You get that feeling."
It was after his first time as Starkdale's Santa that the offers started.
"The following year, some of the people I worked with asked me to come and see their children," said Visyak, an employee of TIMET in Toronto with 28 years of service before his retirement in 1985.
"So I borrowed the church outfit, and then I hated to let go of it, so Mrs. Santa," he gestures toward his wife, Dolores, seated nearby, "started making my outfits."
With as many as four Santa suits at any given time, Visyak has devoted the month of December through the years to playing Santa, allotting his vacation time from work to do so.
"I start Santa Clausing right after Thanksgiving for the parades, churches and fraternal groups and homes and schools," explained Visyak, who has assumed the role throughout the Valley, as far north as Highlandtown in the Wellsville area and as far south as Shadyside and Dilles Bottom.
"At first people would say 'What do you want?' and I'd say 'Just throw a bottle of cheer in the bag, and I'll have that for the holidays,' but eventually I got away from the cheer," he said. "In 50 years I've never charged or set a fee. I'd just say whatever you think it's worth. Never have I set a fee for Santa Clausing, and the rewards are great."
So are the memories - some funny, some sad, some even dangerous.
There was the time, for instance, when he was attacked by dogs when he got out of his "sleigh." Another time, someone slammed the door on his hand after a visit to a house where the mother and two boys there didn't know the surprise visit from Visyak had been arranged.
A funny Santa story, he recalled, occurred in the Wintersville parking lot of the then Mr. Wiggs department store. Visyak had a lot of leftover treats from a stop and decided to pass them out in the parking lot, tapping on the windows of cars to hand them to children.
The next thing he knew, the then police chief, Vic Calabrese, wanted to know what Visyak was up to. Visyak said he was just passing out leftover treats.
"He (Calabrese) said, 'We'll there's a bomb threat at Mr. Wiggs and really you're under suspicion,'" Visyak chuckles at the memory of it.
After Calabrese realized Visyak was "on the up and up, he asked if I'd stay about 10 minutes so he could go home and get his daughter to bring her back and see me."
There have been countless Santa stops at nursing homes.
"One lady I will never forget - Mary. She started crying profusely, and the nurse said, 'What's wrong?' and she said, 'You know why I'm crying? Because I never thought I'd live another year to see Santa Claus,'" Visyak recalled the visit.
"Boy, that gets ya,'" he said.
"It was quite an experience doing nursing homes and hospitals, but one particular story was a little boy about six weeks before Christmas, their home burnt down so ladies at the mill I worked with said this little boy was having a terrible time because his house burned down, and he thought Santa will never find him, so the ladies all went together and bought toys," Visyak said of the meeting that was arranged for him to present them.
"When I went to see him, he jumped on my lap and hugged me and said, 'Santa, I never thought you'd find my house.'"
Another time, there was a boy ill with pneumonia at the old Weirton General Hospital. Again, his female co-workers arranged for presents and Visyak's visit.
"The ladies came with me, and I had two large bags full of gifts for him. We went in the room, and they brought in a miniature Christmas tree, and gave him all his gifts, so Santa found him at the hospital to give him Christmas," Visyak said.
"These are the things that made my experience of being Santa worthwhile," he said.
So have the personal home visits.
A typical home visit on Christmas Eve amounts to about 20 minutes at a house, time enough to field gift requests, present a treat and be on his way.
"I allotted so much time between calls because to do 12 to15 calls in an evening, you've got to really move, and I would usually have a helper, one of my daughters," Visyak said of Sheila, Sharon and Sandee, his "elves."
Ninety percent of the time, children gladly sat on Santa's lap, sharing their wish lists that through the years have changed from simple toys to more sophisticated ones, including electronic games and cell phones.
Those reluctant to approach Kris Kringle, though, eventually came around, warmed by Visyak's kind demeanor.
"It seems like I had a way of dealing with the children," he said.
Some Christmas requests aren't possible to fulfill, he would discover.
"The most unusual things asked for is they would wish they could have their mom or dad for Christmas, because their families were broken up," he said.
"There is so much joy in being a Santa Claus and so much sadness," he said, recalling how he finished rounds on Christmas Eve 1969, only to visit his parents in the hospital. His father was dying of cancer; his mother in cardiac care after a heart attack.
In 50 years of "Santa Clausing," Visyak said he's missed some appointments because of sickness. A heart condition that led to surgery and a year of rehabilitation made him miss 2011 entirely.
"But in 2012 and 2013, I am back at it again," he said.
His Santa years will end on a happy nostalgic note as his final visit will be to the local home of Dr. Tom and Suzanne Brown, a regular Christmas Eve stop through the years. In the 1980s, he heard the gift requests of their children, Jennifer, Sarah and Tommy.
This time around, it'll be with the next generation.
"It's a pretty special way to wrap up things, making that last visit to the Brown house," Visyak said.
Suzanne Brown said she was president of the Wintersville Junior Women in 1981 when she first met Visyak, who was the club's Santa at its Christmas luncheon. "He then became our famous Santa every Christmas Eve," Brown said of what became a holiday tradition. "He will end 50 years at our home this year with our grandchildren (Claire, 7 months, and Skylar, 5 months) for his last visit."
Though he'll give up being Santa, Visyak won't stop being a singer. He'll continue to remain active as part of the gospel quartet Four Friends, now in its 19th year, performing with Jody Glaub, George Allan and Bill Burns.
That this is his final year as Santa brings with it a mixed bag of emotions.
"I feel sad about it, but any more with my health, it's work now," Visyak said. "It's not fun like it used to be because after heart surgery, I'm 85 years old now and a little unstable on my feet."
But it's been a good sleigh ride.
His greatest joy has been visiting children and making them happy.
"Like I said, I really felt at times that I was Santa Claus."
(Kiaski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)