KEVIN LEININGER: Longtime Fort Wayne Santa has been inducted into the Hall of Fame — and his name may surprise you

J. Roland Muhn, seen here in the 1950s, was Santa at Fort Wayne's St. Vincent Villa orphanage for 50 years and has been inducted into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. (Courtesy photo)
Don Rekeweg of New Haven won The News-Sentinel's Phil Steigerwald Santa's Helper Award in 2011 and worked to win Muhn's inclusion in the hall in Santa Claus, Ind. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Phil. Steigerwald, seen here shortly before his death in 2004, was Santa's Helper at the Wolf & Dessauer department store for decades and also deserves recognition in the Santa Hall of Fame. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
The Santa Hall of Fame is in the "Candy Castle" in Santa Claus, Ind., which was dedicated by the Curtis Candy Co. in 1935. (Courtesy photo)
Kevin Leininger

To generations of Fort Wayne children, Christmas wasn’t complete without a trip to the Wolf & Dessauer department store in downtown Fort Wayne, where from the mid-1950s through the late 1970s they could sit on Phil Steigerwald’s lap and tell the city’s best-known “Santa’s helper” what they hoped to find under the tree.

But for an even longer period of time, less-fortunate Fort Wayne children felt the holiday’s secular spirit of giving through the efforts of a different jolly old elf — a record of commitment and generosity that this week earned J. Roland Muhn a place in the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.

You’ve probably never heard of Muhn, who was born in Auburn in 1891 and died in 1985. But New Haven resident Don Rekeweg and others have been working to erase that obscurity, because they believe what Muhn accomplished during his 94 years on earth — much of it in a red and white Santa suit — deserves to be remembered, honored and carried on for the benefit of children still to come.

Muhn’s remarkable story, which includes 50 years as Santa at the old St. Vincent Villa orphanage (later YWCA campus) on Wells Street, more than justifies the now-successful campaign on his behalf. But Muhn’s enshrinement in the Santa Claus, Ind., hall of fame might not have happened at all if pure chance had not intervened.

A couple of years ago, a member of Rekeweg’s church was looking for bargains at an auction when she came across an autobiographical pamphlet Muhn had written in the mid-’70s. Knowing Rekeweg was an active Santa’s helper himself — he’s a member of the Indiana Santa Claus Society and won The News-Sentinel’s Phil Steigerwald Award in 2011 — she gave him the booklet, inspiring him to expose a largely oblivious public to the importance of Muhn’s work and legacy.

And what a tale it is: The son of a share-cropper, he quit school, got a 25 cents-a-day carpentry apprenticeship and was building a house when the owner died. The struggling widow went to the orphanage and found a 12-year-old boy named Mack to live with her, altering her late husband’s clothes to fit him. “But Mack cried because he did not get new Christmas presents, and that broke my heart,” Muhn wrote. So the boys “went out to a little old shed, got down on our knees, held hands, looked up into the heavens and . . . promised God that when we grew up and had enough money we would get the orphans at St. Vincent Villa new Christmas toys or whatever they wanted.”

Mack was killed during World War I, but Muhn made good on his promise. A successful contractor after the war, he made his first trip to the orphanage in 1926, handing out toys, candy and nuts dressed as a chore boy. Within four years, he had donned whiskers and a red-and-white suite, which he wore to St. Vincent’s annual Christmas parties and other community events for the next 50 years, inviting the orphans to write Santa a letter in November so they would not be disappointed with their gifts.

Muhn even had his own Santa’s workshop of sorts. After opening the Silver Moon Toy Co. he often gave toys to children, and the generosity continued until the end of his life, when as an Auburn nursing home resident he would send hundreds of Christmas cards to adults he had helped as children. “Each card contains a $1 bill, $5 bill or 50-cent piece, a longstanding tradition,” United Press International reported in 1984 after Muhn was named one of 10 “Grandparents of the Year” by the National Council for the Observance of Grandparents Day.

“(Muhn) represents what most of us feel Santas should represent,” said Rekeweg, a retired school bus driver and Woodburn firefighter who worked with Tim Etter of Indianapolis and other members of the Indiana Santa Claus Society to secure Muhn’s place in the hall. And what is that, exactly? Muhn put it this way:

“In all these 50 years that I have spent (at St. Vincent), I have learned so much about God’s love . . . Life can be so sweet when you are happy and contented and can help others to be happy and enjoy life . . . I have always enjoyed giving to people; they have a different look on their face. It’s not the value of the gift, but the love they receive with the gift.”

And now, thanks to Rekeweg and others, that gift has been recognized — and returned in kind.

Here’s hoping the hall of fame, which enshrined 58 Santas between 2010 and 2017, can also find room for Steigerwald, who died 15 years ago next month but lives on in the heart of every child — including me — who ever sat on his lap.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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