Mike Peppers is generous and compassionate, traits that make him well-suited for his role as the Quad-Cities’ best-known Santa Claus.
Peppers, 72, of Davenport, received those traits – generosity and compassion — from his father, Tom Peppers, who died in 1964.
“My father and his brothers were raised in Boys Town because his mother couldn’t afford to feed her children,” said Peppers. Her husband had died at an early age, and “she had to split the kids up; she couldn’t afford to feed them in the Depression.”
As a result, Tom Peppers “learned to be a gentleman and a nice kid from Father Flanagan, and he passed that on to his kids.”
Monsignor Edward Joseph Flanagan, an Irish-born Catholic priest, founded the orphanage known as Boys Town located in Douglas County, Neb.
Boys Town sent Mike Peppers’ father and other boys to Nebraska farmers, who put them to work and fed them. Peppers said the conditions weren’t great. “They had to sleep in the barn.”
When Tom Peppers grew up, he became a machinist in Des Moines and was adept at grinding crankshafts, a job that took a lot of skill.
Later, in Davenport, he converted a model T crankshaft grinder to a late model crankshaft grinder run by an electric motor. Then he bought one piece of equipment at a time and built a machine shop, Pep Auto Shop, where he built race cars for others.
“Dad had a heart of gold,” said Mike Peppers. “He’d give guys motors and wait for them to pay. Some of them never paid. Some of them did pay. He trusted everybody.”
Tom Peppers and his wife Leona had six children, two girls and four boys. Things were tight financially. As he told the story, Mike Peppers paused to wipe away tears rolling down his cheeks and apologized.
“We grew up down below the railroad tracks by the (former) city dump, and we didn’t have anything. But Dad did his best. He was a little skinny guy because he didn’t eat like we eat today.”
Though Tom Peppers’ family was needy, he was always generous and compassionate.
Said Mike Peppers: “He had six kids’ mouths to feed at home, but when somebody’s car would break down coming through town … Dad would take them into his house and give them his bed – total strangers – and he’d put the kids on the floor. He and my mom then would sleep in the kids’ beds.”
There wasn’t much money for gifts at Christmastime, but thanks to publicity in the local paper, people “would actually bring gifts to our house.”
That act of kindness nudged Mike Peppers toward his role as Santa, and he is now in his 45th year.
When his brother Bob was president of the Davenport Jaycees, Bob asked him in 1965 to help the Jaycees to deliver toys.
“So we started going house to house, delivering toys to needy families and it just stuck, and I never quit.”
Mike Peppers’ journey toward becoming the Quad-Cities best-known Santa Claus took a turn as he served in Vietnam in the Army.
“We had parties for the kids over there. People would send us stuff we didn’t need (like Christmas ornaments and decorations) in the mail. So we’d give it to the kids.”
When his two-year hitch in the Army ended, Peppers, then a sergeant, came back to the states and took up where he’d left off — delivering packages to needy children with the Jaycees.
“Back then you couldn’t buy a Santa hat,” said Peppers. So his wife Kathie bought some material and made him one. He went to a T-shirt shop and ordered a red T-shirt that said “Santa’s helper” on it. And he bought himself a red coat.
Kathie eventually found a pattern and in 1969 made Peppers an entire Santa suit. “So that’s how it all began,” he said.
Peppers encountered some sad environments. Some children were clothed only in their underwear and lived in filthy, roach-infested apartments that smelled of urine.
The Jaycees used to tell him how lucky he was that, as Santa, he got to go inside while they waited outside in the cold. So Peppers invited them to join him.
“After about one or two minutes inside the house, they were back outside,” he said.
Often there were no Christmas trees in the poor children’s residences. So the Jaycees went to Christmas tree lots and looked for trees that no one wanted, then delivered them to the houses of the needy children.
Today, a dozen custom-made Santa suits hang in the closet of Mike Peppers’ office at Sergeant Peppers Auto Shop in downtown Davenport. They are of various weights for various weather conditions.
Though stained with perspiration, Peppers still uses a 6-foot black belt made in 1978 for him by a friend who did leather work.
Peppers takes his role as Santa seriously. He looks the part every day of the year. With white hair and a roly-poly build, he wears red shirts seven days a week. With the help of his elves, he creates a colorful Santa trading card each year that he happily hands out to those he encounters. He doesn’t use the computer himself, but he has a website, santaqca.com.
The office that Peppers and his assistant share is a shrine to Christmas and Santa Claus. Hundreds of ornaments of Santa Clauses of all shapes and sizes line numerous shelves. They are made of glass, ceramics, wood, cardboard and steel.
Peppers didn’t set out to start a collection of Santa memorabilia. But he bought some Santa Clauses for himself, then other people started giving them to him.
Some of the Santas and ornaments are from foreign countries like Italy, Norway and France. He has a snow globe from Germany.
There is a wooden Santa Claus from Ukraine. It really is a series of hollow Santas, one inside of another.
“They get snowed in all winter, and they make these to sell to the public,” explained Peppers. “The whole family works on them.”
Some Santas have special meaning now because of who gave them to him. Peppers, the official Santa of Quad City Arts’ Festival of Trees, has several items given to him by the late Festival of Trees chairman, Karen Getz.
“Karen was a mentor and pushed me to keep me going,” he said.
He also has a Santa from the late Deb McDaniel, festival staff director from 2005 to 2013.
One of Peppers’ prized possessions is a Scott County sheriff’s badge, proclaiming Santa a special deputy.
“Mike has put a local face on Santa in the Quad-Cities,” Sheriff Dennis Conard told The NSP. “The Santamobile with a smiling Santa at numerous parades and local events has become an institution of the Christmas season.
“The Sheriff’s Office, particularly our bicycle restoration program, owe special thanks to Mike volunteering to be Santa at the yearly bicycle giveaway we have with Friendly House. Santa makes the giveaway of restored bicycles to needy children a special event.”
Peppers is also quite proud of having won the Hometown Heroes Award, one of many honors bestowed upon him over the years.
There are photographs in Peppers’ office of him as Santa plus a Ward Olson painting of him flying through the air in his Santamobile, a large, red, sleigh-like convertible that’s been commemorated as an Isabel Bloom figurine.
But not everything in Peppers’ collection is Christmas related. There is a flight suit and helmet that a former two-star general, who now is in a nursing home, wanted Peppers to have. “He wore them in Vietnam.”
On Peppers’ desk, next to a basket of complimentary candy canes, is the 2014 schedule of appearances Santa must make. Typewritten, it fills nearly two legal-size sheets of paper beginning with an Oct. 4 appearance.
It’s a rigorous schedule, and some years – like one in which he was fighting cancer — have been more difficult than others.
Does he ever get tired of being Santa?
“I never answer that question until January,” Peppers said with a laugh. “I always wait to get past December. Because like right now (early December) I’m pretty worn down after 12 days of the Festival of Trees.”
How long will he continue as the Jolly Old Elf? “We take it year by year.”
Peppers and his wife Kathie don’t have any children, although he has a grown daughter from a previous marriage and a grandson.
But depending upon how you look at it, Mike Peppers really has lots of children. “We handle about 8,000 children per year,” he said.
Copyright 2014 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This ran as a feature in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.