LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Jerry Owens is one of a handful of people in the world who’ve made it into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. How many of us knew that existed?
It’s a top honor for a select group of men who wear the suit, a place in history Owens doesn’t think he deserves.
“I just want to make people smile,” Owens said.
“My whole goal is to protect this figure I represent,” Owens said.
It’s a role he stepped into almost thirty years ago, at the request from Santa himself.
“You don’t get to look like this and be young,” Owens said, unwrapping an old piece of parchment and reading a letter from Santa.
“If you accept my offer, from this day forward, you will be known as Santa Jerry,” he read. He received that letter in 1990 and the rest is history.
Nikki Beckort Eleminopea Photography
Owens first donned the red suit in 1991, while working at the VA. He already had the white beard and a personality to match, but he had no idea the effect the combination would have on people.
“The smile on these guys faces was just out of this world and I thought, wow this is cool,” Owens said.
He never imagined making a career of it, until he visited his first school.
“This one little girl with blonde hair, she was so excited,” said Owens. “She ran straight to me and became airborne. I reached out and grabbed her. She wrapped her arms around me. Hugged me just as tight as can be. She looked up at me and said, ‘Santa?’ I said, ‘yes.’ She said, ”I love you.’ And I knew right then, I had to do this for everybody.”
He visits schools, nursing homes and makes house calls, his favorite.
“It is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” Owens said.
Nikki Beckort Eleminopea Photography
And yet, when Owens was told about the most prestigious honor you can receive, in Santa’s suit, he wasn’t sure he could accept it.
“I don’t think I belong. This is rough. I’ve been doing this a long time, but I can name you 30 guys who probably need to be there before I do,” Owens said.
He was selected as a 2019 inductee into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. He got the call days before Christmas.
“He said, ‘you want to know why you’re there?’ I said, yea. ‘The reason you’re in the hall of fame, Jerry, is because you don’t think you belong,'” recounted Owens. “He said the hall wasn’t created for fame. It was created to give the guys who are going to follow us someone to look up to.”
Someone who can turn critics into believers year-round.
“When I leave that house, I want them to say, I think Santa just left here. If I can do that, I’ve accomplished my goal,” Owens said.
He’s a symbol of what really matters.
“It’s a time to sit back and enjoy our families because we never know from one day to the next whether this time next year, they’re going to be here,” he said.
He sits in his office, filled with Christmas trinkets and a countdown to Christmas clock. But it’s the photos on his walls that remind us of the importance of preserving every smile and every memory.
“I’ve got years of them,” Owens said.
And he has no plans to give it up.
“I hope the good Lord will continue my health and I will be able to keep spreading this joy for years to come, but I still don’t think I belong in the hall of fame,” he said.
Owens and 12 others would’ve taken the stage this weekend for an official welcome into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. That was canceled to keep everyone safe and away from the current coronavirus pandemic.
We wanted to give him and everyone who wears the suit a deserving shout-out. Owens says it may only be March, but he’s already getting calls for the Christmas season.
More from WHAS11: