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Editorial: Yes, Fargo, there is a Santa Claus and his name was Palmer Forness

Palmer Forness comforts a family whose child was suffering from a terminal illness at the child's last Christmas in 1990. Forum file photo1 / 2
Palmer Forness, portraying Santa Claus at West Acres in 1981. Special to the Forum2 / 2

We talk a lot about the spirit of Christmas. Throughout his long and devoted life, Palmer Forness actually embodied the spirit of Christmas. Most obviously, he was Santa Claus for generations of children in Fargo-Moorhead. For years he personified Santa Claus for children at West Acres. And he did, in fact, have an impressive set of whiskers that grew white with the years. But he was not, as one of his sons pointed out, a "ho, ho, ho" Santa. He was more like Mister Rogers dressed as Santa. He cared about the children who sat in his lap, and was intent on having a conversation with them, not merely posing for a photograph.

Forness died at the age of 88 on July 5. In reading the many tributes to him, heartfelt testaments to a life well-lived, it's apparent that those brief encounters left lasting impressions. "Palmer was Santa Claus to me as a child," one wrote. "He was also my neighbor," someone who had a lasting influence. "His kind words of wisdom changed my whole view of life." A woman recalled that, as a teenager, Forness allowed her to vent her frustrations concerning her mother, simply listening as she spoke, lending a therapeutic ear. Another, who called Forness the "Real Santa," said he still hangs photographs of himself as a child with Forness every Christmas. "You will be greatly missed but Heaven has gained one of The Best Angels in the World," the man wrote in his remembrance. "God Bless!!! Thank You for all of the memories and joy you have given to so many of us."

Yet Santa was just one of Forness' varied and vital roles. In each case, the role was really that of a servant. For 26 years, he wore the uniform of a Fargo firefighter. Earlier in life, during the Korean War, he wore the uniform of a soldier. He was a longtime member of Pontoppidan Lutheran Church, where he taught Sunday school, worked with young people, served as a Boy Scout leader and taught Bible studies. He was a husband of 59 years and a father of seven children.

Conservation and historical preservation were themes throughout his life. For many years, Forness volunteered at Bonanzaville, where he helped restore log cabins and built a sod house. He also was a writer, and wrote about his treasured memories of growing up in Fargo, where he once worked as a soda jerk at Service Drug and later at Berseth Fish Company before Uncle Sam summoned him to the Korean peninsula.

In lieu of a memorial, Forness' family asked people to honor his memory by doing a simple act of kindness to make a difference in their family, place of work, neighborhood, community or world. If we took that request to heart, and followed Forness' radiant example, we would keep alive the glowing spirit of Christmas.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.