Billy Smith never had to worry about finding a parking spot for the Thanksgiving Day parade in Charlotte.
When he pulled up to the spot on North Tryon Street where police blocked off traffic, Smith would tell an officer, Im riding in the last float.
The officer always said, Heavens, youd better get going, Santa, Smith said one day last week, his voice breaking into a chuckle that some might confuse with Santa Claus.
For a quarter century, Smith donned the red-and-white suit and rode in that last float, as the star of Charlottes parade. A shoulder injury ended his Santa Claus career in 2005, but the memories, captured in scrapbooks loaded with photos of Smith and his alter ego, keep a smile on his face.
Someone else will be in that float Thursday morning, for the Novant Health Thanksgiving Day Parade in Charlotte. The event, a part of the citys fabric since 1947, has a new sponsor this year and is being organized by Charlotte Center City Partners. It begins at 9:30 a.m.
Billy Smith says he enjoyed arriving early at the parade staging site on North Tryon Street. He would park his car near a building and change into his suit quickly. Then Id walk around and meet people, he recalls.
Smith, now 83, says Charlottes Thanksgiving parade was always fun.
It was exciting, he adds. Everyone would shout at me, saying hello. I had a ball, from the very start.
He got the job in 1981. Smith had been playing Santa at area hospitals for a decade before that and provided a tape of himself for parade organizers. Two weeks later, he got a phone call and was asked to replace the former Santa, who was retiring.
Two of those years, we didnt have a sponsor, so my company paid for it, says Smith, who owned an electrical contracting company in Charlotte. I met a lot of people. I had a lot of fun.
He says a big part of the fun was knowing something that others didnt.
Every year, I would know 50 or 60 people I saw along the parade route, he recalls, again breaking into that chuckle. They had no idea who I was. And my grandsons didnt know, for a number of years. When they found out, one of them asked, How long have you been doing this? I told them, Since long before you were born.
His scrapbooks document the joy he brought others. A clipping from the 1972 Charlotte News customer hotline contained a question from a garden club, asking for help in locating the Santa who had come to their party the year before. He was a very kind gentleman, the note said.
He received the key to the town of Pineville. I still have that key around here somewhere, says Smith, sitting in his living room. And there are numerous letters from hospital officials, thanking him for midnight visits he made to seriously ill children.
In fact, Smith was Santa long before he joined the Thanksgiving parade. Throughout the 1970s, he spent hundreds of hours visiting hospital and cheering up children. He did the same with civic groups.
"How could you turn anyone down?" he asks now.
His eyes still mist when he talks about some of the children and family members he met on those hospital visits.
The parade is just a small part of what he did, says his son, David Smith. He is an amazing man who brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.
This Christmas will be a bit melancholy for Smith, who lives in a retirement community in Mint Hill. His wife of more than 50 years, Dottie, died in early October. She never did the Santa thing with me, but I couldnt have done it without her help, Billy Smith says. He says he deeply misses Dottie but is happy to have two children and five grandchildren to keep him young.
I miss the parade, he says. But I couldnt do it anymore not with that shoulder.
Smith says a parade Santa must have a loud, deep voice; a round face; and a love for children. And kindness, he adds. You cant spread love with a frown on your face.
I never promised anything to the children. But I tried to make them happy. Thats what Santa should do.
Lyttle: 704-358-6107; Twitter: @slyttle
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