Clinton Berndt was a gregarious, barrel-chested man. He farmed with two of his five sons in the White, South Dakota, area, where they raised corn and soybean and kept a herd of beef cattle.     
Clinton looked like any other farmer you might happen to meet. But inside that barrel of a chest there was a heart of pure gold.     
It’s not just that Clinton was a doting grandpa to his 17 grandkids. And it’s more than the fact that he was a good neighbor and a valued member of the local community. It’s because Clinton Berndt was also Santa Claus.     
Clinton played Santa Claus for more than a quarter of a century. Ruth, Clinton’s wife of 55 years, ran a preschool and thought it would be a treat if the little tykes got a surprise visit from jolly old St. Nick. Ruth recruited her somewhat-reluctant husband for the job.     
“I borrowed a Santa suit from the city of White that first year,” Clinton said. “But word got around and people started calling and asking if I could be Santa for them too. I discovered that I got quite a kick from being Santa, so by the time the next Christmas rolled around, I had bought my own suit.”     
Clinton passed many happy Yuletides as Santa, looking forward each year to the time when children would climb onto his knee and whisper their Christmas wishes into his ear. His new career seemed secure that is until he suffered a stroke.     
“I had to relearn how to walk and talk and eat,” Clinton said of his recovery from the stroke. “It was a bit iffy as to whether or not I could be Santa that year. But then some friends gave Ruth an elf outfit – complete with pointy ears – so that she could come with me. By working together, Ruth and I got through it just fine.”     
One year, Clinton was asked by a local shopping mall to be its Santa. That’s how Clinton met John Cleveland.     
John is a resident at Advance, a non-profit agency that supports people who have disabilities. John has a cognitive disability and is obliged to use a wheelchair.     
“They wheeled John up to me,” Clinton said. “And when I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he said a John Deere 630. I said that Santa would see what he could do.”
Clinton later learned John is an avid toy tractor aficionado and is especially fond of John Deere.     
“That night as I laid in bed, I got to thinking about John,” Clinton said. “I guess I have a soft heart because all I could think was, ‘Here I have everything, and he has absolutely nothing.’ I knew that I had to do something about it.”     
The next day Clinton went to his local John Deere dealership.
“I asked them if they had a toy 630 and they said they did, but that they kept it under the parts counter. I told them that I wanted to buy it for a guy at Advance, and they said, ‘Oh, you must mean John Cleveland. He comes out here every few weeks to look at it. We keep it under the counter so that it doesn’t get sold.’”     
Clinton discovered the price of the toy tractor was much steeper than he had expected.
“Terry Jacobson, the dealership’s owner, walked in just then so I put my arm around his shoulders and said, ‘Terry, how big does your heart feel today?’” Clinton said.     
Clinton explained the situation to Terry, who agreed to split the cost of the toy tractor.
“I didn’t tell Ruth what I was up to until I brought the tractor home,” Clinton said. “But she immediately agreed that it was a wonderful idea and wrapped the tractor in festive Christmas paper.”     
A short time later Clinton and Ruth, dressed as Santa and his elf, went to Advance to visit residents who had been unable to see Santa at the mall. Santa and his elf arranged to meet John in a private setting where they presented him with the toy John Deere 630.     
“I tell you, there’s nothing like the look on John’s face when he saw that tractor,” Clinton said, his voice choked with emotion. “Nothing like it in the world. That’s what Christmas is all about.”
Clinton passed away at his home some years ago. But warm memories of his Christmas spirit will continue to live on.
    Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry currently works full time for the Dairy Star as a staff writer/ad salesman. Feel free to E-mail him at: jerry.n@dairystar.com.