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Coleman Murphy is 'Santa's helper'

Murphy's beard is real, and even in the off-season children often stop him to ask if he is Santa.

The most important thing is to believe.

That's the message Coleman Murphy shares with children when he puts on his Santa suit to spread Christmas cheer at Walmart. He calls himself one of Santa's helpers.

"I tell the kids to believe in their heart that there is a Santa," he said. "There are so many Santa helpers around, so you never know where the real one is."

The winner of the Jack Pine Savage contest for the softest beard this year, Coleman said since he already has the beard, all he has to do is put on his Santa suit. Sometimes he gets a schedule of when he will be on Santa duty, other times just a quick phone call telling him to get ready.

On Thanksgiving night, he gave candy canes to more than 330 kids in four hours.

"I walk around the store the whole time, and sometimes I have an elf who carries the bag so I can pose for pictures with kids," he said. "It gets very hot wearing the suit for four hours. Sometimes you'll find me near the frozen area trying to cool off, or else I'll disappear and go in one of the coolers."

During the rest of the year, Murphy arrives at Walmart at 4 a.m. to unload freight from trucks for the meat, produce, deli and bakery departments. He is sometimes stopped by kids later in the morning while working on the store floor.

"I get a kick out of it," he said. "One day, when I was working at Walmart, a little kid was sitting in the cart shopping with his mom. I smiled and waved at him and next thing I knew he started to lean to look around his mom. He had a movie with Santa on the cover and I asked who was on the movie case. I thought he would say 'Santa,' but he looked up and said 'You!'"

Murphy's first stint being Santa was a few years ago when a photographer in Hackensack needed a Santa for Christmas photo shoots. The first time he went to take pictures with families it took him 45 minutes to get up next to the youngest child, who was about 18 months old, because she was scared of him.

"They sat her in front of the fireplace, and I sat about three feet away and inched myself over and leaned over slowly until the photographer could get some shots of us together," he said.

His second time putting on the Santa suit was at the Menahga Food Shelf.

"Someone made dolls for the food shelf," he said. "One lady came in and we gave her a bag of food with everything for a Christmas meal. Then we gave her a doll and she started crying a little bit. I told her she didn't have to pay for it, it was donated. She said her daughter wanted a doll for Christmas and she wasn't going to be able to give it to her because she couldn't afford it. She turned around and wanted to know if I would hug her. She thanked us for it and said it would make her daughter happy that day. She had everyone who was working there almost in tears."

Murphy also dons his Santa suit to visit people at CHI St. Joseph's Health. The first year he visited was when his mom, Bea Murphy, was in the hospital.

"I got to know the nurses and doctors and everyone," he said. "One night when I was in my Santa suit driving through town, my wife, Jan, was with me and asked if we were going home. I said, 'No, there's one place we've got to stop.' I stopped and got candy canes while in my Santa outfit and everyone laughed, but they liked it. Then I headed over to the hospital and gave everyone a candy cane. One of the nurses in the emergency room who I knew quite well asked if I had time to visit a little girl who was sick.

"I looked around the corner and came in, and she had a slight grin on her face, although you could tell she wasn't feeling good. I talked to her and gave her the candy cane and told her she had to save it until her mom and the doctor said it was OK. I said I heard that she was good and she was going to be alright."

On the second floor, he left a candy cane on each of the nurse's chairs and disappeared before they showed up.

Murphy said he hopes to make hospital visits again this year. "I know what they go through," he said. "I was at the hospital with my mom many times when she was sick."

Murphy, who was born in Bemidji then moved to Illinois, still remembers the magic of Santa when he was a boy.

"I saw him at the American Legion parties," he said.

His most memorable gift was a battery-operated tow truck when he was eight. "I got that and my brother got a submarine," he said.

Murphy has been a resident of the Park Rapids area since 1996. He said being one of Santa's helper brings him a lot of happiness.

"I like doing it, you know," he said, "seeing the expressions and smiles on the kids faces. I have kids come up to me when I'm in the suit. Some of them hug me. Parents tell them to say 'thank you' and when they smile I say that does it. The kids don't know when I'll show up, but they know I'll show up."

"Last year after Christmas, one of the kids who saw me in my Santa suit saw me working at Walmart," he said. "When he asked what I was doing I said, 'Well, I have to feed my reindeer,' and his mom just grinned."

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