Adults in Bay St. Louis conspired to keep secret the identity of the Santa who wore shrimp boots and arrived by seaplane each year.
- story by Ellis Anderson, photos courtesy Pat Murphy, Prima Luke and Melva Luke
The plane could have landed right away, but the pilot, Jack Seuzeneau, likes to build suspense. He banks into the turns, circling several times over the writhing mass of people below. All wave wildly in greeting, trying to catch the attention of his celebrity passenger.
Leroy Luke, sitting next to Jack, adjusts his well-worn Santa’s costume. He won’t put on the mask until they land, because it’s hot and he’ll be wearing it for the rest of the afternoon as he greets hundreds of children individually. He’s grinning with excitement, thinking of his youngest daughter, Prima, her older sister, Melva, and his son "Little" Leroy, standing somewhere in that long line waiting to get a present and talk to Mr. Claus himself.
Maybe Jack asks the question, shouting to be heard over the engine, “Hey Leroy, think they’ll recognize you this year?”
In Bay St. Louis, Leroy Luke is known as a jokester. Pulling the wool over the eyes of his own children would have been the ultimate jest. “Nope,” Leroy might have answered. “And I’m not letting on until they’re grown.”
The plane sets down easily on the water between the St. Stan pier and the American Legion building and skis to a stop. Santa pulls up his plastic mask and lowers himself out of the plane, first balancing on the float and then jumping into the shallow water. Instead of snow boots, Santa’s wearing shrimp boots so he doesn’t get his pants wet when he wades to shore.
He’s old-hat at this, having done it for — how many seasons now? But he forgets from year to year how the cheers of the children become an actual wave as he gets closer to them, a physical cresting swell, driven by adoration. The love of all those innocents breaks over him with joy as he steps onto the shore and into their waiting arms.
Melva, Prima and other folks who witnessed the arrival of Santa each year said it never seemed unusual that his mode of transportation was a seaplane. The fact doesn’t even particularly stand out in the memory of anyone I talked to.
“Of course it seemed normal. We didn’t have snow,” said Prima. “What’s he going to do in south Mississippi, come in a sleigh? Besides, when you’re little, you don’t care how Santa got there, just that he’s there.”
He was there every year, star of an annual event sponsored by the American Legion. The group would hold fairs in the summer to raise money for toys. Then a few days before Christmas, hundreds of board games, dolls and basketballs would be laid out on two lines of folding tables, one for boys and one for girls. Every child who came that day, regardless of need or race, would get to pick a toy from a table, receive a free ticket to a movie at the Star Theatre (right across the street) and have the privilege of sitting on Santa’s lap, spilling their deepest hopes.
Prima rolls her eyes when I ask her how old she was when she figured out her dad was the town’s Saint Nick.
“High school,” she admits.
Prima wasn’t the only one. Most people I interviewed said they didn’t find out until they were adults. Even the fact that Leroy Luke was slender instead of portly, and youthful instead of old, didn’t give him away. Keeping the identity of the Bay’s Santa hidden seems to have been a town conspiracy and many accomplices took part.
Like the night Santa made an appearance at Picolla’s dance school. The Luke family sat with the rest of the audience when suddenly the overhead lights started flickering. Staff members approached Leroy, who was an electrician by trade. They hated to ask, but would he mind helping find out what the problem was? Santa was due to go on any moment and might have to do so in the dark!
Leroy, always a good sport about helping out, followed them backstage. He apparently fixed the problem because the lights came up and Santa came out just a few minutes later. At one point, Santa even called out Prima Luke’s name and asked that she join him onstage.
Overjoyed to be singled out, she ran to the front and sat on his lap, under the spotlights her daddy had fixed. Santa gave her a large plastic candy cane filled with hard candies. Then he bade farewell, stepped behind the curtains, and was gone. A few minutes later, the real hero of the evening, Leroy Luke, came back to his seat.
“Daddy, Daddy,” Prima cried, “you just missed Santa! He was just here!”
Hurricane Camille took the American Legion Hall at Washington and the beach in 1969 and the Santa tradition was never revived. Leroy retired from his role as St. Nick and passed on when he was only 68. Each holiday season though, Prima and Melva retell the story of Prima's awakening. It's a new family tradition.
“Every year at Christmas, Mama would pull out those pictures of me sitting on Santa’s lap. One year - I’m in high school - and she asks me if I know who Santa was. I said I had no idea.
"She told me to look at Santa’s hands in one of the pictures. I recognized them as Daddy’s hands right away. They both laughed and laughed. Lord, how they laughed. My daddy, he was some jokester.”
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