And he lives in Saint John, New Brunswick
by David Goss
Hidden behind the granulated bark of a huge Centennial Elm in Saint John’s King’s Square is one of the many characters who abound in this uptown park to the amusement and delight of thousands who pass through it daily. It’s Vern Garnett, one of the more benign of the eccentrics, and he has his eyes trained on a young family just passing the Young Monument.
They do not see him, but he is conscious of their footsteps, and just as they pass his tree, he sticks out his bald head and white whiskered face—and gets the response he’s expecting from a skipping young lady, who screams out in delight, “Look, it’s Santa!”
She grabs her younger sister’s hand and dashes toward Vern, who begins entertaining them with what seem like impossible twists of his hands and fingers, accompanied by a series of mouth noises—barks, squeaks, meows, chitts, and multilevel tweets. The children recognize these as images and sounds augmenting the hand motions, which they then know are cats, dogs, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and birds. After a few minutes, Vern might add an up-to-date guessing game of manipulated images on his cell phone screen before he tells the children that he isn’t Santa Claus at all, but prefers to be known as Father Christmas.
Vern has just given the children the joy his mother brought to his life in 1960, when she took him to the uptown Saint John Christmas parade and he saw Santa for the first time. “I was perhaps four years old,” Vern says in a recent interview, “and my mom says the words that came out of my mouth were, ‘Wow, he’s real!’”
Vern’s mother Sophia had no idea at the time how Vern’s life was to be affected by that first encounter. But before she passed in 2008, there was no uncertainly in her mind that her son’s many benevolent projects and community endeavours for the marginalized had brought him the closest to anyone alive trying (in season and out) to reflect the love and joy that Santa is capable of bringing.
Vern is first to admit that it was his mother and stepfather’s example that led to the many good works he has accomplished, both as ordinary citizen and in his alter ego image as Father Christmas.
It is this appellation he prefers. “Santa is for December,” he says, “He’s the gift giver. People associate him with presents. I want people to think beyond that, to the sharing of self in the making of a better world, especially for those who are on the margins.”
That’s exactly what his mother and stepfather did. “We didn’t have a big house, but if someone was sick, or out of work, they came to stay with us. No questions asked. There was always someone hurting and they were there to help,” Vern recalled.
About this time, Vern discovered the old Saint John library on Hazen Avenue. He’d look for books to read to the visitors to their home. In the adult section! But he’d be chased by the librarians to the downstairs and shown suitable children’s books. “I don’t want baby books,” he’d tell them emphatically when they showed him a Hardy Boys or similar titles. Eventually they gave up, and to this day, Vern is a voracious and eclectic reader.
Because he enjoyed sharing in this way so much, as an adult he got involved in literacy programs, and has been responsible for trailer loads of books being added to school libraries across the province.
Some of this was done as a result of his membership in the province’s Home and School Association, in which he received a lifetime member certificate on April 28, 2007. Beside introducing reading programs, he was involved in running chess clubs and building and supporting playgrounds, often by giving the association his paintings or woodwork—seashore findings he forms into various creatures by hand cutting, hand polishing driftwood he finds on the Fundy Shore at Anthony’s Cove.
Vern’s life work began when he was 13 with a part time job for Thorne’s Hardware, where they had to fudge the records to keep a boy under 18 (with great work habits) on the job. Later, he worked in security positions for other Irving concerns at the Oil Refinery and at Saint John Shipbuilding.
Image Courtesy of Vern Garnett
At the latter, he once discovered that the Christmas turkeys employees received from the Irvings were not all getting to the family homes. Well into the New Year they would be discovered by their foul smell, as they had been tucked behind heating pipes in various crevices in the plant by their recipients. Vern suggested to Joe MacLeod of Local 3 that the employees be asked to donate any turkeys they did not want to the Salvation Army. That program lasted until the dock closed in 2000.
Another program Vern was in on from the start was as a school lad in Millidgeville North High School. “One day Principal Barry Fontaine came and asked for two volunteers. He did not say what for. I was in the reserves and used to sticking up my hand, so I did. Fontaine then revealed I was to be the first male in the school’s home economics class. There was a howl of envious remonstration from the other boys when Fontaine told them I would be with 33 high school girls. I use that story to this day to try to encourage people to volunteer,” Garnett says.
Another first he was involved with at that school, which led to his lifetime interest in similar types of programs he visits to this day, was the initial day care for pregnant mothers attending the school. “This led to what we now call First Steps Housing,” he notes.
His believes his work as a security guard developed his ability as an observer of the human condition. “After a near drowning while on a trip to Ontario when I was very young,” Vern recalls, “I realized I had an awareness of people’s conditions.” His own term for this is empath, or ‘assisting spiritualist’ and it is something that drives his life to this day. “I just feel I have to speak to someone. They might not even be around, but I have to go out and find them. It might be two in the morning and I’d know I had to go to the old Burial Ground, but I just had to do it. It might be a feeling I had to go to the hospital, someone’s home, or just across the street to the Mental Health Centre, but I’d be compelled to go. Invariably, I’d meet someone that needed help. It might be a simple need, like food, (he carries Tim Horton cards by the dozen) or a more complex need, like someone having thoughts of suicide, or they might be passing, and I’d need to stay with them to the end.”
This is why whenever Vern meets people he’ll usually offer a hug. “Not a big bear hug,” he explains, “but I just walk over, and say, ‘nothing personal, but I think you need a hug,’ and I offer my right hand to them, and just lean in… and let it happen if they want it to happen, and I will usually hear a big ahhhhh sigh. You can just feel them relax.”
Vern also credits his work with his ability to help people struggling financially. Though living himself at poverty level, he’s met so many people of means over the decades, befriended them, and is not shy about approaching them for assistance when there is a real need he can tell them about. “I have never been turned down for help, because they know I wouldn’t be asking if it was not a genuine need,” Vern says.
By August of this year Vern had appeared as Father Christmas on 37 occasions when he felt the need to suit up—but it is normally in December when he dons the costume several times daily and admits to being Santa.
The December Santa began in 1981 on the then-popular CFBC radio morning show with Donnie Robertson, then later, on the Talk of the Town show with Tom Young. “I was the voice of Santa on the air, and that was before I’d ever wore the suit or even had a natural beard,” Vern says. “Imagine,” he laughs, “I trained all the announcers to do Santa’s voice and I was out of a job!”
One night he got a call from his wife Florence’s youngest sister, whose children were acting up, as children do in the excitement leading to Christmas. She wanted Vern to come and settle them down, which he did. That was his first costumed role as Santa.
It was another popular Saint John Santa, Don Shaw, who talked him into playing the role at the McAllister Place Mall, which he did for nine years.
“I think the most difficult request to deal with was when someone asked me to bring them good health. I had one young lady who was a singer. Her teacher suspected she had throat cancer. She was beside herself and asked me what to do. I told her, half joking, ‘I’ll put a word in for you with the Minister of Health,’ and more seriously, ‘I’ll pray for you. You get to the hospital and get this looked after.’
“Well, five years later, she came back to me with a little child, and asked if I knew who she was. I didn’t until she reminded me of her story. She said, ‘I wouldn’t be here today, Santa, with my child, if you had not given me that advice.’ And she wouldn’t have been there if she hadn’t heeded Santa’s advice,” Vern laughs. “It was a heart-warming occasion, to say the least,” he adds.
During the years Shirley McAlary served as Mayor of Saint John, (1995-2004) Vern was the Santa at the lighting of the official Mayor’s Tree at Market Square Plaza.
He no longer does either of these public events, and though he misses them, his health is not what it once was. “I took a fall at the dry dock in 1993, and have been fighting fibromyalgia since then.” In the spring of 2018, cancer was added to the mix. At the time he was told he would not last till Thanksgiving. In his always jocular manner, he asked the doctor, “Canadian or American?”
He has beaten both dates and expects to do so again and again. “I still have lots of work to do, both as Father Christmas and Santa Claus,” he says. “There is a hurting world out there, and as long as I can be faithful to that man my mother introduced me to, who triggered my imagination so long ago, I will be doing it. Just being able to put a smile on people’s faces keeps me going.”
The world needs more Vern Garnetts, Santa Clauses and Father Christmases.