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'I Have Christmas Every Day'

Ricky Duling

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Retired Richmond Police Sgt. Ricky Duling, 74, has been Sgt. Santa for 28 years. More than 30 years ago, an undercover police assignment required that Duling grow his hair and a long beard. At first, Duling shrugged at comments about his resemblance to Santa. Then a local sporting-goods store urged him to play Santa in a commercial, and Duling discovered he could cash in on Santa Claus for charity. [The commercial] started with 20,000 basketballs, 17,000 tennis racquets, 50,00 footballs, you know, in all these big quantities. And then the guy says, "And where should I send this bill?" That's when I show up and say: "Oh, send it to the North Pole." [laughs] And that was the commercial. Two years ago [the store owner] was over at a Christmas show and she was talking about how the [Sgt. Santa] program had been real helpful, and I said, "Do you know what? If y'all had done that commercial about the Easter Bunny this never would have happened." So fate, you know, it all just came together. It's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me in my life, it really is. And I tell people that I can truly say there's not a day goes by in my life that I don't make a lot of people happy, and it doesn't cost nothing to do it. Just being there, whether you got the suit on or not, it works. It's a great gift. I tell people if the good Lord made me look like this, then evidently — I guess it's what he intended me to do. When I lay my head on my pillow at nighttime I know I've made a lot of people happy, and if he lets me wake up tomorrow, I'm going to do the same thing again. I've just been blessed. I have Christmas every day of my life. … You know you try to do more each day when you know you've got this gift and can give this love. If you can do more, you do more. Now I'm going to tell you what my schedule is. Last night at 5 o'clock, I went to the cotillion at 3rd and Franklin with the 6th graders. I was supposed to be back for the 7 o'clock one, but I was able to slide on that one because at 6:30 I had to go to the Virginia Museum for Ethyl [Corp.'s] party. I left Ethyl's party and went to Seminary Avenue. They had all the kids over there and toys they'd brought in for us. So I had to go over there. I left there and went back to the cotillion. Then I went back to the Virginia Museum to the end of Ethyl's party and then went to The Place at Innsbrook for Richmond Honda's party. … I was supposed be here on the toys ride at 6 o'clock in the morning, but I had to be at the Mechanicsville Ruritan meeting at Shoney's at 6:30, and it's a good little hop from the West End all the way out there. But you know, whatever time it takes. When I was coming back from the Ruritan meeting I couldn't get here when they kicked [the B-103 toy drive] off, and when I turned off Mechanicsville pike onto the on ramp of I-64 there was an accident up there somewhere. It was just jammed up. And so I'll tell you a thing about stress. I just knew I was going to be there for a while. What happens is this: I've got the radio on B-103. They say, "Food Lion just pulled a trailer in here and they have over $15,000 worth of toys on it." [giggles] You know how that made me feel! What a great way to kick a toy drive off. … My momma — I mean, she couldn't get us a whole lot [at Christmas], but she got us something. I never had a new bicycle. The first bicycle I had my uncle bought. You know, the police used to have sales of the old abandoned bicycles, and he bought a 20-inch or a 15-inch for my brother, and he bought me one, it was about that little. The wheels were about that big around. [makes a circle the size of a doughnut.] The guy that lived the second door from me worked for the railroad, and he had some green paint up in his place there. He gave me that green paint to paint that bicycle. And when I painted it, that ol' green paint never would dry. Every day, I'd wait and want to ride that bicycle and the paint wouldn't be dry. I had to go back and take the paint off it so I could ride. [laughs] When I see these little kids and I can give them a lot of new bicycles, inside of me I know how they're feeling. But, again, I knew why we couldn't have a lot of things. And that makes a difference when you understand why you can't. I got a letter on Nov. 9 from this little boy. [Reads]: "Dear Sgt. Santa, I hope you can help my momma. I am 9 years old, and I have a little brother named Warren and he's 8 years old. My momma is always in pain and stays sick a lot. We try our best to help her. We never have money to pay the bills or get the things we need. I am asking you to help us to get just one Christmas tree so my momma can smile, and my little brother will have a tree. Thank you, Sgt. Santa." You don't find many 9-year-old boys that would put mother first. … [He chokes up.] Oh me, I shed a lot of 'em, and I'm not ashamed of it. They're happy tears, they really are. People always ask me what I want for Christmas and I say just to be able to make people happy. That's it. I've been given this gift a long time ago, and the good Lord's given me this gift. And you can't get that in a department store. [A boy approaches.] Boy: Santa, you've got a visitor. My sister's come to see you. Duling: Wait right here, I'll be right back. [He goes to greet a small redheaded girl near half-filled tractor-trailer. Minutes later he returns.] Sorry about that. I'm going to quit talking in a minute. You know, people ask what's going to happen when I'm gone. I'll be 75 next July. But the good Lord has given me good health. … You know, my mother struggled to get us along. At Christmastime the News Leader used to come out with this full sheet of the Christmas carols with the music and the words. And when I hear "Silent Night" I can see all of us, me and my brother and my momma in the kitchen, and she's in there cookin' supper, and we're all with that ol' sheet singing those Christmas

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