James Phelps played Santa Claus at Christmas time and continued playing the part year-round without the red suit (and sometimes with it), riding his motorized wheelchair around Garner giving away treats.
But no more; the long-time Raleigh area resident died at Rex Hospital after an extended illness on June 16 at 77.
Phelps started the nonprofit “Project Santa” in 1993. He wrote letters to companies all over the country and they would donate toys as well as food, clothes, toiletries and anything else helpful to families in need, according to his nephew John Phelps.
“He was always giving more than he was taking,” John said. “He was well known by the residents around Garner.”
(Project Santa has been dissolved. James Phelps also started Santa Clause Inc. in 1997, which remains an active charity according to the state Secretary of State’s website.)
Phelps’ health suffered late in life, and he adapted to using a motorized scooter to get around. He could frequently be seen riding around Garner – where he lived most of the last two decades – in his scooter with American flags sticking out the back.
“Towards his later years, he would take his motorized wheelchair, go to Food Lion and get a deal on cases of bananas and oranges, and ride around to the rest home and give food out to the residents there. He would do that on a fairly regular basis,” John Phelps said.
Phelps played Santa Claus for numerous organizations, and occasionally he’d break out the red suit other times of year. John said he’d also give away American flags, and even had some Mexican flags that he gave away to local Latinos, John Phelps said.
James Phelps never had a driver’s license; he’d walk, catch a cab or get a ride from a friend.
He worked mostly for various grocery store chains. John Phelps said he was a connoisseur of eastern-North Carolina barbeque, and also was a Civil War buff. He used to search for artifacts with a metal detector and had a collection of bullets, buttons, and even an old military pistol, John said.
Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams first encountered James Phelps when Phelps asked about putting in a sidewalk that could get him from his apartment in Forrest Hills to the nearby Food Lion. Williams said he was persistent, and eventually the sidewalk, which helped him navigate Vandora Springs Road, was built.
Williams also said Phelps was a big advocate for veterans.
“He was an easy guy to be around,” Williams said.
John Phelps, who now lives in Lexington, Ky., also noted his uncle’s gregarious nature and friendly personality.
“He was a humorous guy. He always had a funny story about someone or someone,” the nephew said.