A season of firsts for Santas coping with COVID-19

By Jackie Nelson

MOUNDRIDGE – Being Santa Claus is not an easy part to play any year, let alone during a pandemic. This year, Collin Loutensock took on the Jolly Old Elf for the first time, while Dwayne Willis missed playing Santa for the first time since he took on the suit.

For a first-time Santa, Loutensock said, “I was a little nervous, almost as nervous as the kids. I didn’t know what it was going to be like.”

Loutensock said his wife, Kelsey (Unruh) Loutensock, asked him to take the gig for the Hesston Recreation Commission, where she is the assistant director.

“I got that look that I had to do it,” he said.

Willis, who has been the Moundridge Santa for the last half-decade, first wore the red suit in Salina as part of a Chamber of Commerce benefit event.

“I said, ‘You know what, I think I’ll try it,’” he said.

This year, with COVID-19 causing events across the nation to be cancelled, Willis said, “I missed it a lot.”

Willis had events already scheduled when ”COVID got so bad in the area, they decided not to have it at all to and not to put anyone at risk.”

However, he said, he wanted children to know Santa will still be coming this year and they “should leave out a carrot. Santa will have a mask on, this year.”

For Loutensock, the Santa at six-feet was a bit of a relief, not having children or adults close enough to tug on his costume beard.

“It was funny, there were a few kids that I knew and they would look at me like they knew who I was, but they couldn’t put their finger on it,” he said.

Willis learned to dodge recognition, even though he has a public-facing job at Goering Hardware. But, as both men learned, context is half of recognizing someone.

“I’ve had a couple people come in the store and they’ll hear my voice, turn around, ‘he sounds like Santa!’ And I’ll talk to them and tell them sometimes I like to pretend I’m Santa and they’ll laugh.  I’ve done it so long, kids get to know your laugh, the way you talk and gesture. I’ll be at the grocery store talking to my wife and these kids that have sat on my lap, they are trying to figure out who I am,” he said.

Loutensock faced his first skeptical child on Saturday, faced with the dreaded question of, “Are you real?”

“I didn’t know what to say. Mom stepped in and said I was a helper. But, it really caught me off guard. I wasn’t expecting it,” he said.

Willis, who for years has carefully cultivated his Kurt Russell Santa, begins prepping months in advance to look the part as convincingly as possible.

“Right now, my hair is pretty long – almost to my shoulders. I’ll get my hair cut after Santa gigs. During the year, I’m growing my hair, but then I’ll get my beard going about two months beforehand. My wife thinks I’m nutty,” he said.

While Loutensock said this year was a one-and-done favor to his wife, Willis is eager to get back into the suit.

“In Moundridge, everyone knows everyone and people shop local. You know everyone and their kids and see them grow up from babies to teens. You watch those kids have kids and I get a lot of joy from them coming to see me and watching their children grow,” he said.

Dwayne Willis of Moundridge donned his Santa suit for the first time in 1993. He is pictured with youngster Addilynn Unruh, whose mother also knew Willis as Santa when she was a small child.
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