Sometimes people enter your life for just a moment but manage to leave a lasting impression. Others interact with you for years without leaving any impression at all. The thing is, the people whose interactions help mold you are often completely unaware of the impact they’re having on your life.
I had a lot of jobs growing up before I began my professional career. I was a caddy, washed dishes in the college cafeteria, drove a forklift, cleaned chemical tanks and stocked an assembly line. The summer between high school and college was spent working for a veterinarian cleaning kennels, bathing animals and cremating the ones that were put to sleep.
Relatively speaking, those jobs were all pretty easy. The hardest job I ever had was between Thanksgiving and Christmas during my college years of 1973-75. I sat in a sleigh in the middle of a mall in Lexington, Ky., and, to thousands of little kids, I was Santa Claus.
It was kind of an out-of-body experience because, during that four-hour shift, Geoff Rosenberger ceased to exist. I was Santa, which meant that as long as I didn’t break character, nothing I said or did during those four hours would ever be attributable to me. It wasn’t like a movie actor playing a role. No credits roll when Santa exits his sleigh. I had complete anonymity.
You can’t understand how liberating that is until you’ve experienced it. Just like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Geoff Rosenberger had never been born. There was only Santa. I’d see one of my professors walk by while doing his Christmas shopping and Santa would call out from his sleigh: “Joe Massie, have you been a good boy this year?” And, despite the embarrassment I’d create, because everyone inevitably turned to stare at the guy Santa was targeting, it was all done without any risk of retribution.
This was long before stores started opening on Thanksgiving Day with “door buster” sales promotions. Back then, malls made a big deal out of Santa’s arrival on the day after Thanksgiving. It signaled the official start of the Christmas shopping season and a lot of money was spent promoting it.
So, Christmas 1975 kicked off with Santa arriving in a two-person, M.A.S.H.-style helicopter, which, every other day of the year, served as the local traffic copter. I could see the large crowd assembled below as we circled to land and everything seemed great until I realized that I couldn’t see my feet because of all the padding around my waist. So, as I struggled to exit the chopper, I was overcome with visions of face-planting in front of all these kids who had gathered in the parking lot to see me. Or, even worse, having the downdraft from the rotor blades, which were still turning, blow my hat and wig off, traumatizing several hundred small children and guaranteeing myself a place on the Friday evening news.
Now here’s the thing about Santa Claus: It’s a pretty limited gig with very little leeway for improvisation. The script was written generations ago and you have to stick to it. But, while you aren’t allowed to improvise, parents can, and do, customize the story for their kids.
You have no idea what a child’s parents have told them about you. Are you the real Santa or just one of Santa’s helpers? How can reindeer fly? How did the kid’s parents explain Santa’s ability to go all over the world in just one night? If they were engineers, they probably made up some story about the space/time continuum. Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong probably told their kids that Santa had some “magic dust” to get him going. Sitting in that sleigh, you haven’t got a clue as to how mom and dad spun those details. But one thing is certain; you’d better not contradict anything they’ve told their kids.
So, you don’t know what the kids believe and you don’t know if any of the presents they ask you for are actually on their parents’ shopping list. But what you do know is that the Santa suit, which hasn’t been dry-cleaned in a while, is really hot, your throat is parched, kids have been climbing all over you for hours and you’re really uncomfortable.
The drill usually goes something like this. Children climb into the sleigh, you ask what they want for Christmas and then you let your mind wander while they ramble on. When they stop talking, you ask if they’ve been a good little boy or girl this year and maybe try to see if they can name any of your reindeer. You remind them to leave some milk and cookies out for you on Christmas Eve, hand them a coloring book and a candy cane out of your red velvet sack, and that’s pretty much it. Then it’s on to the next kid—again and again and again for hours on end.
Except, sometimes that’s not it. Sometimes, mom wants to get that kid’s four brothers and sisters into the sleigh all at once for a group photo because she doesn’t want to pay for separate pictures for each child. So, you’re left to engineer how to cram five kids onto one lap for a smiling family photo op, a photo op that the older kids are totally embarrassed to be a part of and refuse to smile for.
The excitement generated by Santa’s hyped-up arrival lasts for a week or two. The days right after Thanksgiving are filled with excitement and enthusiasm for both kids and parents alike. But, by mid-December, you begin to notice things changing. Most of the kids have already made their first visit to Santa and, now that the lines have shortened, some are back for their second or third visit, expecting, of course, that Santa will remember everything they told him on their prior visits.
Thousands of kids passed through my sleigh over the course of those three years and they are mostly a blur.
Except for one.
I can’t remember which year it was, but I remember the little girl. She was six or seven years old, her blond hair in big curls, wearing a blue dress with white leggings. It was obvious that a lot of time had been spent styling her hair to make sure she looked just perfect.
As I noted earlier, by mid-December, most of the children who came to see Santa either deserved coal in their stocking or were the frequent flyers, kids who were checking back in just to make sure Santa hadn’t misplaced their gift list. But this little girl was different. The fact that she was all dressed up made it obvious that she had come to the mall specifically to see Santa. And yet, when she got on my lap and I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said, “I don’t want anything. I just wanted to come see you.”
Now, out of all the thousands of kids who sat on my lap over the course of those three Christmases, no other child ever said that to me.
Of course, there were a gazillion kids who were too petrified of Santa to say anything, kids who were there strictly because their mothers said: “Look, you told me you wanted to see Santa. We stood in this line for an hour and now you tell me you’re afraid? No way. You’re going up there!” Those kids don’t count. But of all the ones who opened their mouths and actually engaged in a conversation with me, only this one little girl didn’t ask Santa for any presents.
But the reason this little girl was so remarkable wasn’t just because she didn’t ask for anything. She also couldn’t walk. She wore leg braces and had to be carried up to my sleigh.
So, here was this little girl who couldn’t walk, got all dressed up to see Santa and didn’t feel the need to ask for any presents. What a contrast to the endless parade of able-bodied kids who sat in my lap and had no shortage of things they absolutely needed Santa to bring them.
That’s a true story. I know it sounds like something ripped off from the Hallmark Movie Channel, but it actually happened. That little girl should now be approaching her 50th birthday. And she has absolutely no idea of the impact she had on me over 40 Christmases ago during our brief two minutes together. In fact, I’m sure she has no recollection of the encounter at all. But I pray that I never forget her, or our conversation. She taught me a great lesson about humility, inner strength and basic human decency. I owe her a debt of gratitude for that. It seems the best lessons often come from unexpected places.
Now, that little girl wasn’t my first source of anonymous inspiration. That actually happened a few years earlier, during the first week of my freshman year on the University of Kentucky campus. I was walking past the Student Center and happened to encounter a guy standing there handing out a pamphlet called “How to Survive UK” or something to that effect. It was obvious by just looking at the booklet that it wasn’t professionally produced. It was clearly the work of amateurs; I’m assuming this guy and a few of his buddies made it. But one of the tips it provided was this: “If you want to sign up for a course but don’t have the required prerequisites, sign up for it anyway. The computer will probably give it to you.”
Remember, this was back in the days of computer punch cards and the algorithms weren’t very sophisticated. So, come the second semester, there was a macroeconomics course I wanted to take, but it was a 200-level course that freshmen weren’t eligible for. But, I remembered the passage from “How to Survive UK,” took a shot and, lo and behold, the computer gave it to me. I fell in love with the subject, switched my major from pharmacy to economics and altered my career path, all thanks to this random encounter with a guy I spent 10 seconds with and would never see again. He changed my life with no idea of the impact he would come to have on me.
Actors, athletes, musicians and politicians constantly interact with people and, justifiably or not, are often cast as role models. I’m sure countless teenagers have been motivated to pursue careers in public service by personal encounters with well-known politicians. Lots of athletes, both college and professional, volunteer their time meeting with young people, some in hospitals, some at youth centers or schools, trying to boost kids’ spirits or encourage them to make smart choices in life.
When I was around 17 or 18, my father said something that stuck with me. He said: “I don’t care what you do with your life. You can drive a garbage truck or you can be a brain surgeon. I really don’t care. Just do me a favor. Be a contributor. Put more into the world than you take out of it.”
I’ve thought about those words a lot over the years and have tried to live by them. But as that little girl demonstrated to me long ago, you don’t have to be famous or powerful to inspire people. You just have to go about doing ordinary things in an exemplary manner. And while we may never know the impact our actions come to have on someone’s life—that was certainly the case with the little girl in the blue dress and the guy handing out pamphlets—our lack of awareness doesn’t mean we aren’t being impactful. Hopefully, impactful in a positive way.
I’m 65 years old, the point in life where people start to think about things like legacies and whether or not we’ve lived our lives to the fullest. Have we made a difference in the world? Have we achieved the goals we set out for ourselves when we were young? Have we achieved our own personal definitions of success? Which is longer, our list of accomplishments or our list of regrets?
Given that I’ve watched a bunch of guys my age pass away this year, those reflective questions have been very much on my mind. I’m very conscious of my own mortality and the reality that more days are behind me than ahead of me.
But here’s the thing. No matter how you answer these questions, whether you see your life as having been a rousing success or a colossal failure, I’m willing to bet that each of us has made a positive influence on a whole bunch of people without ever being aware of it. I’m confident that each of us has, by our example, motivated someone, probably a lot of someones, somewhere, somehow, sometime, to change for the better. If we’ve lived our lives properly, the odds that we’ve made a positive difference in someone else’s life are very much in our favor.
Obviously, not everyone who helps to shape lives is anonymous. Parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, Boy and Girl Scout leaders, drill sergeants, commanding officers, bosses, mentors, spouses, all sorts of people have played a role in making us who we are. Some may just be ordinary friends and acquaintances, people who model behavior we’ve tried to emulate.
To the extent that the people who helped mold you are still alive, why not drop them a note of appreciation while there’s still time?
They’re probably going through the same mental exercise that I am, taking stock of their lives and wondering if they’ve made a difference. They’ll appreciate having you tell them that they have made a difference, that the way they lived their lives has influenced the way you’ve elected to live yours. But unless you make it a point to tell them, they’ll never know.
Why not give the people who have helped to shape you the greatest gift possible, the gift of hearing their own eulogies while they’re still alive. You never know. They may want to make a few edits.
Geoff Rosenberger is board chair of Rochester Prep Charter Schools. He co-founded Clover Capital Management Inc. in 1984 and served as managing director until his retirement in 2004.