His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!
Santa Claus wasn’t a seasonal role for Ben Shanklin. It was a way of life.
He worked all year to help youngsters in Northeast Ohio, paying special attention to underprivileged kids and children with physical and developmental disabilities.
“People often have tender hearts at Christmas and then forget about those in need during the next 11 months,” he once told the Beacon Journal.
Shanklin, a U.S. Army veteran who owned a flooring business, moonlighted as a jolly old elf, raising funds to supply toys and treats to children. He started out in the mid-1950s by setting up outdoor light displays on his lawn at 1549 Manchester Ave. SW in Tuscarawas Township.
By the mid-1960s, he began dressing like Santa and greeting kids at his home on State Route 93, west of Massillon, about a half-mile south of old U.S. 30. Every December, Shanklin sat in a homemade booth in front of his home and welcomed guests from 6 to 11 nightly until Christmas Eve.
Young faces lit up when they saw Santa Claus in North Lawrence, not the North Pole.
In 1968, nearly 400 children paid a visit. In 1969, nearly 1,000 stopped by. In 1970, the number had surged to more than 4,000.
Shanklin raised money by soliciting donations during public presentations in the Stark County community.
“I don’t care how big the groups are when I talk,” he said. “I’ll talk to just one person if need be.”
He generally lectured until he saw someone in the audience look at a wristwatch. Then he knew it was time to wrap up his talk.
In the long-since-retired vernacular of the day, he championed causes for “crippled children” and “retarded children.” He established the Ben Shanklin Crippled Children’s Fund and the Ben Shanklin Retarded Children’s Fund.
“Helping handicapped kids gets in your blood,” he explained. “That’s why I do this.”
Award honors service
In 1971, he received $3,000 in donations and delivered five truckloads of toys to kids at local agencies. That was the year he received a Stark County award for “years of devoted dedication and service to God’s very special children.”
In 1972, he delivered 150 cases of donated lollipops to Apple Creek State Hospital, Boys Village at Smithville, Massillon State Hospital, St. John Villa in Carrollton, Fairmount Children’s Home, the Wayne County Children’s Home and the Salvation Army.
"I just love children," Shanklin said.
The outdoor Christmas decorations grew more elaborate on Shanklin’s lawn. Sometimes they took more than two months to set up. He needed 40 fuse boxes for thousands of lights on more than 20 displays, including a Nativity scene, gigantic Bible, 12-foot wreath, Christmas tree, Santa’s sleigh, reindeer and signs that said “Peace on Earth” and “Crippled Children Can Be Helped.”
Shanklin, who served more than 10 years as a Tuscarawas Township trustee, bought wheelchairs, walkers, bicycles, tricycles, scooters, radios and special equipment for children with disabilities.
“I do this on my own,” he once told the Beacon Journal. “I believe we are all God’s children. I believe in all God’s churches.
“I have helped many children: Catholic, Baptist, Amish, Protestant. It doesn’t matter. We’re all responsible for each other.”
After playing Santa on his front lawn for 35 years, Shanklin suffered a devastating accident Dec. 22, 1991. It was around 11 p.m. and all of the Christmas guests had gone home for the night. As he walked an assistant across the street, a car struck Shanklin in front of his home.
Good work continues
He spent four months at Akron City Hospital, waking from a coma with broken legs. He learned to walk again and vowed someday to don the red suit and beard. Although Shanklin couldn’t play Santa in 1992, kindhearted donors continued to aid Shanklin’s causes.
“I’m getting donations from people I don’t even know,” he said.
Shanklin recovered from his injuries, resumed his work as Santa, put up the best Christmas displays that North Lawrence had ever seen and continued to raise money for children.
“I’ll be doing this until they carry me out, feet first,” he told a reporter in December 2003.
Ben Shanklin was 74 when he died the following October. He was buried next to his wife of 48 years, Betty, at Brookfield Cemetery in Massillon.
The headstone features pictures of Santa Claus, teddy bears and gingerbread cookies.
The inscription reads, in part: “Fill not your hearts with pain and sorrow, but remember me in every tomorrow. Remember the joy, the laughter, the smiles, I’ve only gone to rest a little while.”
Thank you, Santa Claus.
Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.