He loves children, knows how to build stuff and has a soft, white beard.
Guy Willoughby of Selma looks and fits the part, but the retiree might be the most unassuming Santa Claus one will ever meet. His calling card has a picture but no name or phone number. He prefers, instead, to share this message: “Jesus loves you, and so does Santa.”
Willoughby, 76, says playing the role is as much a personal ministry as it is a seasonal job. From mid-November to a few days before Christmas, he gets paid for appearances at restaurants, nursing homes and holiday gatherings. But just as often, he volunteers to visit schools, hospitals and churches and to assist with charitable causes.
It all started in 1997. He was working as a production manager at Northern Telecom in Raleigh when someone asked him to play Santa Claus for the company Christmas party. He liked the idea and rented a suit for the gig.
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“When I started doing it, I saw how happy it made everybody,” Willoughby said. “Whether you’re old or young, you can’t help but smile at Santa.”
As word spread, Willoughby started getting more and more requests. By 2000, he had bought his first suit. To the ensemble, he later added his signature “magic” hat, which flops from side to side with the wave of a hand.
When his wife, Mavorine, started tagging along to a photography studio for portrait sittings with children, customers would ask if she was Mrs. Claus. “By default, I guess I am,” she remembers saying. So she bought a dress and joined him for occasions that called for both Clauses.
Mavorine said her husband has always had a gentle way with children. (He grew up in Kenly and was the middle child in a family of 15.) If she notices that the little ones in line are the least bit anxious, she calls them over to break the ice.
Willoughby said he listens to children’s wish lists but never makes promises. Sometimes they’ll ask if Santa can reunite a mommy and daddy. He has held infants as young as 2 days old and posed for photos with adults as old as 100.
And he doesn’t mind if adults sit on his knee. In fact, he encourages it.
The couple lived in Raleigh for years before renovating and eventually moving, in 2002, to the childhood home she inherited from her parents on North Green Street in Selma. Over 10 years, the couple did much of the work themselves on weekends and days off from work.
Before retiring, Willoughby did metal fabrication for 28 years, first in the shipyards in Newport News, Va., then later for the prison system and for a private company in North Carolina. He retired a second time after working with Northern Telecom.
Both are volunteers at Johnston Medical Center in Smithfield.
Willoughby doesn’t know the exact number of people he greets every year as Santa. But he gives to everyone he meets a candy cane (last year, he gave away 1,500) and the calling card with the message he thinks best befits the season.