Monongahela man in Santa Claus role brings joy, eases pain
Bob Mauer is plagued by congestive heart failure and a chronic back condition. He needs a walker to get around and is legally blind.
But when the 77-year-old Monongahela resident dons his red velvet suit and hat, he transforms into a beaming, chuckling Santa Claus — just as he has for 40 years.
“He's the closest thing I have ever seen to Santa Claus, period,” said Jim Toscano, who has enlisted Mauer to play Santa at his family's barber shop in Rostraver Township the past three years.
“The man lives to play Santa. That's his whole being. And he's become like a part of our family.”
With a soothing voice, kind blue eyes and thick white beard, Mauer looks and sounds like the real thing. And just like the jolly old elf himself, Mauer doesn't show a hint of negativity despite his ailments.
He addresses grown men as “son” without pretense and purrs with laughter when telling stories. And the beard? It stays all year long.
“Outside of my family and my children, nothing I've ever done gives me as much joy,” Mauer said of portraying Santa. “I will honestly tell you if you do it once, it's the greatest gift you'll ever get.”
Mauer spent Friday and Saturday afternoon listening to the wishes of kids at Toscano's Barber Shop – not bad for a guy who just spent a week in Monongahela Valley Hospital in Carroll Township.
“We thought he wasn't going to make it this year, and we were told, ‘No, that's the best thing for him!'” Linda Toscano said. “The kids... he remembers their names and what they asked for from the year before. It's amazing.”
It's also amazing that Mauer – a former truck driver for a chemical company – first played Santa against his will.
The year was 1972 and Mauer's friend, an East Coast supervisor for Grant's retail stores, called him out of desperation to play Santa at the chain's Moon Township site.
“I got stuck because his Santa Claus bailed out at the last minute,” Mauer recalled.
“I wanted to stay home, because I was driving truck all over the country and into Canada, but my wife (Sandy) talked me into it.”
Ironically, a foul-mouthed boy changed Mauer's outlook forever.
“Evil Knievel was all the rage at the time, and they had a girl's version called Derry Daring,” Mauer said.
“I had done everything I could to make this kid talk. So I gave him a ‘Ho Ho Ho' and asked if he'd like me to bring him a Derry Daring doll.
“He looked up at me and said, ‘(expletive) you.'”
Accustomed to such language only from fellow truckers, Mauer began laughing so violently, he slid out of his seat with the boy still on his lap.
“It was surreal. I had tears in my eyes. I could hear his mother say, ‘You didn't just say that,' and that just made me crack up even harder,” Mauer said.
“I was only supposed to be there until a fill-in could come at noon. I told them, ‘Forget it. I'm staying.' From that moment on, I was hooked.”
Since then, Mauer has been a frequent presence around the Mid-Mon Valley during the holiday season.
This year, he was at his usual spot inside a barn at Lone Oak Farm in Monongahela.
He also worked various fire company parties including Valley Inn and Finleyville.
Before each holiday season, Mauer dutifully performs his homework, keeping up with current trends, hot toys and popular children's programs.
“When they're being shy, I can talk about Jake and the Pirates or Dora the Explorer, and before long I can get them on my lap,” Mauer said, chuckling. “That's when you get them talking. You repeat what they told you and they get the strangest look like, ‘How does he know that?'”
Since Santa is supposed to have all the answers, Mauer has become a veteran of tackling tough questions from curious kids.
“One kid told me Saturday, ‘You don't look like Santa Claus. ... You don't have long white hair.' I pulled my hat to my side and said, ‘I'm too old to have a full head of hair, but it's certainly white,'” Mauer said.
“Then he said, ‘But you don't have a pretty smile.' I said, ‘That's from eating too many cookies and candy, and that's why your mom tells you to brush every day.' That's when he accepted me as Santa Claus.”
Mauer also won't let anyone see his walking aid and refuses to take an oxygen tank to gigs, insisting, “I'd rather stay home.” He keeps a handheld tank hidden – just in case.
Mauer's version of Santa endures despite a long list of medical difficulties, including triple coronary bypass surgery in 1987 and valve replacement surgery in 2001. He's suffered mini-strokes in both optic nerves in his eyes and sees only in “tunnel vision.”
This year, doctors found a pair of compression fractures in his back. Still, Mauer refused to nix vacationing in the Outer Banks. There, he was out fishing when he suffered a heart attack and spent his remaining vacation in a Virginia Beach hospital.
Earlier this month, Mauer underwent his one-week hospital stay to treat his congestive heart failure condition.
“I didn't want to miss any time, but they had to get the fluid out of me and get everything the way it's supposed to be,” Mauer said matter-of-factly.
“I don't understand what they do, but I don't question it. They keep doing their thing so I can keep doing mine.”
Santa's schedule can be demanding, and Mauer's daughter, Carole Davis, had curtailed some of her father's bookings and time slots.
Before, he'd work the farm from morning until dusk on Saturdays and Sundays. Now it's noon to 4:30 p.m.
“She does all my bookkeeping for me – who to see, where to go,” Mauer said. “My daughter won't let me start doing churches and scout groups, because she's afraid I'll push too hard.”
Still, all Mauer asks is get him to his chair, bring in the kids and – Poof! – the pain, the tunnel vision, and everything else disappears.
“(Ailments) are something I live with, but when I'm somewhere being Santa Claus, even my doctor will tell you there's no better medicine. Because I'm happier than heck,” Mauer said. “
“Santa Claus gets all the glory, but I get all the reward.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-684-2635.