EAST COUNTY — Steve Hensell’s eyes twinkle as he peers across the table at his granddaughter, Rozlyn Sigular, who is sitting on her grandmother’s lap.
The 3-year-old’s grin only grows larger when her grandmother points to Hensell and asks her to identify the 6-foot, 4-inch, 335-pound man with sandy blond hair and a wiry white beard, who sits before her.
“That’s Santa,” she says, smiling.
Hensell’s wife, Wendy, prods again: “Who else is it?”
“Papa!” Rozlyn says, perking up and then pushing her head into her grandmother’s shoulder.
Hensell grins as his 1-year-old grandson crawls into his lap.
The military veteran and former mechanic has become an icon of holiday cheer at Manatee County public schools, where he volunteers as Santa each year. Dressed in his crimson red suit, hat and leather boots, Hensell placed children from Lakewood Ranch High School’s Mini Mustangs program upon his knee Dec. 13, for a holiday breakfast and pictures with Santa.
This week Hensell is continuing to visit Easty County schools, including Bashaw, Freedom, Gullett and Willis.
“I love the kids,” he says. “I love the surprise on their faces.”
Hensell, who works full time in the Manatee County School District paint department, began volunteering as Santa for Manatee County schools when his now 30-year-old son was a student at Prine Elementary more than 20 years ago.
“I started there (and then started going to other schools),” Hensell says. “I would take vacation days the first few years to (go) and be Santa (at school events).”
Former School Board member Walter Miller and former Superintendent Roger Dearing, however, allowed Hensell to take up — and expand — his Santa duties with support from the district, starting about 15 years ago. Hensell, who has been making rounds to Manatee’s elementary schools in his Santa suit and boots since then, also makes sure to make time for other child-focused organizations and events that require Santa’s presence.
Wendy Hensell begins scheduling her husband’s Santa visits to Manatee County elementary schools in October, to ensure he can visit between 18 to 24 schools each year.
“We’ve worked on it,” Wendy Hensell says. “It’s a Santa science.”
On a given year, Hensell now sees more than 30,000 children, through his visits to schools, community events and his work as Santa for the Florida Railroad Museum’s “North Pole Express” events.
At each event, he makes mental checklists of what gifts each child requests.
He also fields questions such as, “How old are you?” and “What’s your favorite kind of cookie?” with quick-witted answers: “Six-hundred or more,” “I can’t remember” and “I love them all; I’ll never turn down a cookie.”
“He’s the best Santa ever,” Wendy Hensell says, adding she’s speaking without bias. “”Really, he is the perfect Santa.”
Hensell smiles, adding he’s naturally a gracious and loving person, but that anyone can assume the role of St. Nick.
“It’s in everybody,” he says.
But Hensell’s dedication to his alter ego reaches beyond the holiday season. Santa sightings continue year-round. Nearly wherever Hensell goes, mothers tote their children, with mouths gaping open and eyes wide, to Hensell’s side for a quick visit with the man who must be Santa.
“I just assume the role,” he says.
Hensell’s eyes twinkle.
Does the role ever get old?
“Lord, no,” he says, before letting out a “ho, ho, ho.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at email@example.com.
• Favorite reindeer: Rudolph
• Favorite superhero: Superman
• Favorite Christmas movies: “Scrooged,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street”
• Favorite cookie: Loves all of them
ª Beard: Real; trimmed off 11 inches this fall.