A Family Tradition - Sturgis Santa

You may know Tom Garn as a member of 16th Avenue Band. Or maybe you’re more familiar with his role as Santa Claus in Sturgis for years, just as his father, Robert, did before him.

With holidays on our minds, we talked to Garn about his time as Santa and the spirit of giving in Sturgis.

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Story by Michelle Patrick
Q: Where did the inspiration come for your family to play the role of Santa?

A: Hanks Williams Jr. said it best “It’s a family tradition.” When I was very young, Santa came to our house on Christmas Eve with candy canes and cookies, delivering the Christmas spirit to our family. Little did I know, it was a man named Bill Beckwith, who was married to Erma Garn, a shirttail relation. We always called her “Aunt Erma.” After Uncle Bill passed away, his suit fell into the possession of my father, Robert, who took on the responsibility of spreading the Christmas spirit to the city of Sturgis.
My father spent 30 years polishing the craft of being the most believable Santa that he could be. The most important aspect was when mom made her own Mrs. Claus outfit and graciously took my father’s arm at many Santa appointments including riding into town on the fire truck and on Christmas Eve going to the homes of friends and family, keeping the magic alive in the minds of another generation of young children.
Around 1993, my supervisor asked if I would play Santa at my company Christmas party. When Dad saw that I took interest in wearing a red suit and beard, he handed his suit over to me along with all the requests from the many community members and organizations needing Santa during the holidays. The rest is history; for the next 20 years, before I could finish the leftover turkey from Thanksgiving dinner, my Santa schedule was full until Christmas day.

Q: What are some of your favorite memories during your time as Santa?

A: Oh so many ... where should I start? I found a picture in my mom and dad’s basement of my first time ever playing Santa. I was 13 at my piano teacher’s Christmas party for all of her students. The first company Christmas party at Syndicate, they put me in a suit and put me on roller skates. It went pretty well until my pants fell down. I made it a rule, never to do that again.
Some very special moments were when Kim Musolff would arrange the horse and carriage to bring me into town and we would wave to all the kids and parents waiting to meet Santa. The crowds that waited in the cold were pretty amazing. It just seemed to make the holiday the most magical time. I think riding my Harley Davidson dressed as Santa and leading the Sturgis Toy Run would have to be a real high point for me. Around 1997 Dave Locey asked me to play Santa at Timberly’s tree farm so every year we put together a schedule and I got the honor and pleasure of greeting his customers and their children through the month of December. That’s a memory I truly will miss and think often of Dave and his Christmas tree family.

Q: Do you see yourself ever playing the role of Santa again?

A: Well, I still have a few families that call and I still have a problem saying “no.” I just don’t think I can keep the same schedule I used to keep. I have new interests these days.
Last year, my son, Dustin, made me a grandfather, so you know I just won’t be able to resist the temptation of putting a smile on my grandson’s face.

Q: In your opinion, is the spirit of giving still alive and well in Sturgis?

A: Being a Santa for 20 years has given me a true insight into the giving spirit of the people of my hometown. Local organizations, like the Exchange Club, the Eagles and the Elks, the Legion and the VFW all have their programs and events to help out those less fortunate at the holidays. A true measure of the giving spirit of this community is reflected by so many local businesses and other groups who give not only at Christmas but throughout the year. I look around and I see posters for benefits for people who are going through some calamity in their lives, it seems there is always someone or a group like the Hillcrest or the Harley owners group ... working together to raise money for an individual or family who is going through a tough time. In my opinion, the city of Sturgis is alive and well with the spirit, and blessed with so many givers.

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