Instead of a sleigh, this Shriners Santa cruises around in a crowd-pleasing go-kart built to look like a miniature white Peterbilt truck. Walt Hamby of Mackay, Idaho, drives his truck replica, a tribute to his trucking career, in parades and special events, to promote Shriners International and its hospitals for children.
During the holidays, he slips into his Santa suit to visit children and senior citizens. Whenever people try to pay him for his services, he deflects their gratitude.
“I tell people to write a check to the Shriners Hospitals for children instead,” said Hamby, 75, a Shriners International member. “I don’t expect anything except a smile and a thank you.”
To feel like his holiday character, Hamby lets his white whiskers grow into a fluffy beard and takes two Santa suits from his closet. They were bequeathed to him from friends, Dick Machamer and Paul Remaley, who were also Shriners.
“Dick was my mentor and sponsor for joining the Shriners, so wearing it is a way to honor him and what he did,” Hamby said. “Paul always volunteered to be Santa at the mall in Twin Falls.”
Hamby became a Shriner in 2002 while living in Hollister, Idaho.
“I wanted to join because I believe in what they stand for—family, fraternity, fun and philanthropy,” he said. “Plus many of their members are asked to be Santa.”
To become a Shriner, applicants must be Freemasons and must complete several requirements including community service projects.
Hamby said volunteering to be Santa is one of his most cherished ways to serve his community, whether in Mackay, where he moved at a friend’s suggestion, or in the Twin Falls area, where he worked as an officer at an Idaho Department of Transportation port of entry.
“I got started in 2012 when my daughter told me Santa was needed at an elementary school in Twin Falls where she was a PTO member,” he said.
Since then, every Christmas season he visits students at elementary schools in nearby Hollister and Castleford.
Whenever Hamby suggests a donation be made to a Shriners hospital, he is doing his part to support the nonprofit philanthropic outreach—22 medical centers for children in North America. The nearest one to Idaho is in Salt Lake City, Utah and Spokane, WA for North Idaho.
“Shriners’ hospitals have made an amazing difference in more than one million children’s lives,” Hamby said.
He happened to meet one of those children, McKlyn Thomas, 13, this summer in Mackay. During the county fair, he was giving her and other kids rides in his go-kart.
“When I saw the Shriners emblem on it, I had to talk to him,” said McKlyn’s father, Levi Thomas, a Mackay native. He was in town visiting his parents during his time off from working at a gold mine near Elko, Nevada, where he lives.
“I can’t ever express my gratitude for the Shriners Hospital in Salt Lake City and the staff’s professionalism in treating McKlyn,” he said. “They’re respectful, positive, knowledgeable, and take pride in what they do.”
McKlyn has had eight surgeries in six years after breaking her collar bone, arm, and growth plate in her left knee. Six of those surgeries occured at Shriners, where she will have a checkup in December.
“The family joke is that she’s accident prone, but only on the left side,” Thomas said. “It’s a blessing she’s still with us, thanks to doctors there who want to make sure kids live successful lives.”
McKlyn’s ordeals started in 2013 during the Christmas season. She was riding with her mom when they hit snowy roads near Burley, and their Tahoe rolled. Due to the severity of her injuries, McKlyn was taken to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, where she was assigned to Dr. Marcella Woiczik, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. She received follow-up care at Shriners, where Dr. Woiczik also works.
After recovering from that accident, she broke other bones while playing.
“She’ll have to keep getting plates in her knee until she stops growing,” her dad said. “Despite everything that’s happened, she’s going at 110 percent—doing gymnastics and performing on a competitive cheer team doing cartwheels and flips.”
Besides supporting a Shriners hospital to help patients like McKlyn, Hamby has worked on local philanthropic projects. During summer, he organized fund-raisers to reroof the Masonic Lodge in Mackay, where he is a member. The Masons also give away three bicycles to encourage elementary school students to read.
“Doing service projects and being Santa helps me stay optimistic, especially with losing loved ones,” he said.
His wife, Peggy, died in 2009 after a five-year battle with colon cancer. His younger brother, John, never recovered from heart surgery and died in May. His mother, Julia passed away in July 2018.
As a tribute to his mother, Hamby becomes Santa and visits residents at the assisted living center where she lived in Twin Falls. He recalls her reaction when she was 92 and saw him for the first time in his Santa suit at a church program.
“After that, she always called me Santa. She told me, ‘I never thought I’d get to be Santa’s mom.’ When I saw her the day before she passed away at age 95, she looked right at me and asked, ‘Santa, are you running the streets?’”
Hamby said he is happy to run the streets and be Santa for anyone who asks him.
“As we age, we learn what giving really means. All people—regardless of gender—can be Santa.” ISI