KNOXVILLE, Tennessee – Eric Schmitt-Matzen is a real live Santa. The six-foot man weighs 310 pounds, has a thick, fluffy, purely white beard that he even bleaches to maintain the whiteness. With a Christmasy giggle, he joked about his girth and said, “Just enough of a lap for the kids to sit on”.
The 60-year-old mechanical engineer is the President of Packing Seals & Engineering in Jacksboro.
Also, Schmitt-Matzen’s birthday coincidently falls on December 6, which is known as Saint Nicholas Day. Schmitt-Matzen wears “Santa suspenders” as part of his regular wardrobe.
A few weeks ago, this man’s jolly character went through a difficult test. “Santa” had to fulfill a small boy’s final Christmas wish.
Schmitt-Matzen said, “I cried all the way home. I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive”.
He recalled the event and said, “my wife and I were scheduled to visit our grandchildren in Nashville the next day, but I told her to go by herself. I was a basket case for three days. It took me a week or two to stop thinking about it all the time. Actually, I thought I might crack up and never be able to play the part again.”
“I’d just gotten home from work that day,” Schmitt-Matzen recalls. “The telephone rang. It was a nurse I know who works at the hospital. She said there was a very sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus”.
He said, “OK, just let me change into my outfit.” But the nurse cut him off and said, “There isn’t time for that. Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now”.
Within 15 minutes he arrived at the hospital where he met the boy’s mother and a few relatives.
The boy’s mother handed him a toy PAW Patrol from the TV show. She wanted Schmitt-Matzen to give it to the boy. He said, “I sized up the situation and told everyone. If you think you’re going to lose it, please leave the room. If I see you crying, I’ll break down and can’t do my job.”
No one entered the room with him. Everyone was sobbing in the hallway and watched through a small window to the Intensive Care Unit.
Schmitt-Matzen walked into the room. “He was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep. I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why you’re my Number One elf!
The boy mustered his strength and replied, “I am?”. Schmitt-Matzen said, “Sure!” then gave the boy his present. He added that the boy was “so weak he could barely open the wrapping paper. When he saw what was inside, he flashed a big smile and laid his head back down”.
For the boy, Schmitt-Matzen is Santa Claus and said, “They say I’m gonna die. How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’
Schmitt-Matzen then said to the boy, “Can you do me a big favor?” In which the boy replied, “Sure!”
“When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in”, Schmitt-Matzen said.
The child wondered, “They will?” Schmitt-Matzen answered, “‘Sure!”
He added, “He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question”. The boy then asked Schmitt-Matzen “Santa, can you help me?”
It was the time when “I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him”.
He recalled, “Everyone outside the room realized what happened”. The boy’s mother ran into the room shouting, “No, no, not yet!” Schmitt-Matzen handed her son back and left as fast as I could.
He was distraught. “I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I’ve seen my share of (stuff). But I ran by the nurses’ station bawling my head off. I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it.'”
The event made Schmitt-Matzen in thinking about retiring his Santa character. “I’m just not cut out for this”.
However, he gathered the strength to do one more gig. “When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold. It made me realize the role I have to play”.
He said, “For them and for me,” as he ended his recollection.