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December 21, 2003

Life's never dull for these two

From: Urbana/Champaign News-Gazette, IL - Dec 21, 2003

Published Online December 21, 2003

   DANVILLE – Two of Santa's helpers say the key to having a long life is to stay busy.
   "The way to die quickly is to not do anything," said Russ White, 81. "I think that because we've stayed active, we've stayed healthy. They can never say we led a dull life."
   White and his wife of 56 years, Mallie White, certainly know how to keep busy. Russ works the Sunday morning shift at the WITY radio studios caring for the religious programming of the station and is working at Swiss Colony for the holiday season.
   His wife works three days a week at Ross Hearing Center, which sells and services hearing aids.
   Then there's the 19 weekends since June that the couple has spent on the road to bring the Experiencing God program to various churches throughout the Midwest and beyond. She works with children in first through sixth grades while he takes on the adult classes.
   But this time of year the couple takes on a special, additional role – that of representing Santa Claus and his Mrs.
   The Whites appear in the Downtown Danville Night of Lights Parade, visiting with children after the parade and visit businesses and customers during the Winter's Gathering, an open house for downtown Danville businesses.
   For the past few years, they also consider it a special treat to spend time at the AMBUCS breakfast for children who attended the club's Summer Camp for Children with Disabilities and their families, and a second event in the afternoon for adults with disabilities who come from the independent living centers around the area.
   The AMBUCS events remind the Whites of when the two were asked by the Buena Park Mall, in California, near where they lived at the time, to work with hearing impaired and autistic children. The majority of the children had never had a conversation with Santa.
   For one day a year each holiday season, the mall would sponsor the opportunity for the children to speak with Santa and his elf, Mallie. But the elf didn't fancy the elfin look.
   "We were in our early 50s then, and I told them the white tights just weren't going to work," Mallie White recalls of her transformation to the more dignified Mrs. Claus.
   The couple had taken classes to learn sign language when some new people who were hearing-impaired could not understand the sermon.
   "When we started the class, there were probably 14 or 15 of us, but only Russ and I finished it," she said. "We started at Anaheim High School and were taught by Jerry Gustafson who was a teacher there. She's a professor at Gallaudet University (The world's only university for the deaf and hard of hearing) now."
   The Whites sign the SEE (Signing Exact English) method. "We sign every word, using the correct tense, all the endings, no shortcuts," Mallie White explained. "The American Sign Language system uses concepts."
   The Whites continued their signing education with additional classes, and when the mall asked if anyone would be willing to be a signing Santa, Russ was a shoo-in.
   But at first, the hearing-impaired children were very hesitant to approach.
   "Some of the kids didn't want anything to do with me," he said. "The next year, they got to the edge of the carpet, and when they saw I signed, they were in my lap."
   In 1985, when the signing Santa program was in its fourth year, the Orange County Register quoted a 13-year-old boy as asking for a red Ferrari and two round-trip tickets to Hawaii, to which Santa replied, "I'd like the same thing."
   "The kids were pretty impressed that I could remember them from year to year and ask if they got what they asked for the previous year," Russ White recalled.
   Today, the Mrs. works the crowd while Santa passes out gifts and takes photos with participants at the AMBUCS events. Working around crutches and wheelchairs is a snap for this Santa. And Mrs. Santa just wants to make sure everyone is having a good time and has had a good year.
   "One year, a little girl in a wheelchair handed me a note," Russ White said. "'There's two things I want really, really bad,' she told me. We knew there was no way her parents were going to be able to get them for her, so we went shopping."
   "One was a special Barbie doll that year and was really a hot item. It was hard to find, but we got it, and the other was a video she wanted that I can't recall now," Mallie explained. "We took them by the house. It made us feel really good to be able to do that."
   "The next year, there was another note, but her parents told us they were able to handle it that year," she said.
   The Whites have also done work with young women through the Orange County, Calif., probation office. And once, Russ White had the dubious job of telling a 14-year-old boy that the denial of his request to go home was due to the fact his parents no longer wanted him. No one else had been able to communicate with the deaf child to explain why he had to stay.
   "There are just so many kids hurting out there," Mallie said. "And there's no one to do things for them."
   Playing the role of the Santa has been an interesting transformation for Russ White.
   "You may not believe this, but I'm not a people person," he explained. "I could go up on a mountain and make a good monk. Mallie is my family, and that's all I need."
   "Sometimes you feel foolish walking around down Vermilion Street in the costume, but I have to step outside myself."

Copyright 2003 News-Gazette, Inc.