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Kids were his life

N-Santa-FRONT_Lady-by-SarahLocal Santa Claus passes away

By Judy Reed

Most people grew up never knowing Russell Schestag’s real name. For most of us, he will always just be Santa. Not only did he look just like the Santa Claus we all remember from childhood but his heart was as big as the North Pole itself.

“Kids were his life,” said Russell’s wife Marion.

Russell died Sunday, November 8, about 4:57 p.m. of a massive heart attack. He was sitting outside on his bench in front of his workshop. “He held my hand and told me he loved me, and then he died,” shared Marion.

N-Santa-scanPeople all across the area are heartbroken to know that the man they have seen as Santa for 26 years will not be there this season. He served as Santa for businesses and organizations in Kent, Montcalm, Mecosta, and Newaygo counties.

Russell has always been a man that gave of himself. He served 13 years in the Marines, from 1959 to 1972, and earned six medals while in Viet Nam. Later he was a truck driver for many years.

Marion said that Russell first became Santa when a neighbor asked him to buy a cheap costume and play Santa for their little boy. “He did it, and it escalated from there,” she said. His appearances grew each season, and he usually did about two dozen each year. But he never charged for the service. “He only took donations,” explained Marion, who became his Mrs. Santa Claus. “He then would go and buy gifts for kids that wouldn’t otherwise get them.”

She remembered one time that they spent the money on groceries for 18 families. “We delivered them all on Christmas Eve, until the wee hours of the morning,” she recalled. “But that’s the way he was. Ask him for something, and he’d do it for nothing. That’s just the kind of person he was.”

Marion said everyone knew Russell was a “stinker.” “He’d give a hug or flirt with every waitress. He was a charmer, but he was my charmer,” she said.

She’s now in the process of canceling this year’s appointments. “We had a few already scheduled,” she said.

Santa may be gone, but the memory of all he did will live on in the hearts of boys and girls, men and women, for many years to come.

Unfortunately, Russell died without any insurance, and the family is asking that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the family to assist with funeral expenses. (See obituary on page 7.) If you’d like to donate, send it to Marion Schestag, 9527 120th Street, Sand Lake, MI 49343.

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