You probably never met Walt Queen. If you did meet him, you would have remembered. You never forget meeting the real Saint Nicholas.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our story begins in Louisville, Kentucky, 1989. In a courtroom. The man sitting in the front row near the plaintiff’s table is Walt. He’s the one with the bushy gray beard and rosy face. You can tell he’s been crying.
His two daughters, ages 18 and 20, were heading home from work one night. They entered Spaghetti Junction, where I-64, I-65, and I-71 intersect on the northeastern part of town when a semi-trailer smashed into a barrier and lost its cargo. Queen’s daughters took a direct hit. The young women were killed instantly.
The courtroom fell silent as the judge was about to pass sentence. The truck driver sat with head lowered. His life was over. The verdict would be reckless homicide; up to 20 years in prison.
But then something happened.
There was a stir in the courtroom. It was Walt. He stood. He addressed the court. He asked the judge to overturn the sentence. Walt begged the judge to let the man who killed his girls go free.
“Today,” Walt said to the truck driver, “my wife and I release you. We are not angry at you. We do not hate you. We forgive you.”
And if there was a dry eye left in Jefferson County, Kentucky, it was made of brass.
The judge granted Walt’s request. That same year, Walt’s wife decorated their house for Christmas. Christmas was surreal, visceral, an almost unreal experience. So the family kept Christmas going. Almost like a perpetual memorial.
“We left decorations up for ten years,” Walt’s wife remembers, “and the lights didn’t go out, not one time.”
That’s sort of when it all happened. One December a friend asked Walt to play Santa and deliver a puppy to his daughter. Sure, Walt said. Why not.
Walt drove to the girl’s house and knocked on the door. The door opened. Before him stood a little girl. Walt almost started weeping.
“When she saw me,” Walt said, “it was magical. It was almost more than I could bear, emotionally.”
And that is how Walt Queen became the most sought after Santa in Kentuckiana.
He was a veritable icon in Louisville. He did about 60 events per year, from Bass Pro Shops to TV appearances. He incanted smiles. He made people laugh. And he allowed children of all ages, creeds and denominations the opportunity to shatter his meniscus.
“What most people don’t realize if they haven’t met Walt is that he didn’t just put on a suit and smile for the camera,” said Walt’s lead elf, Whitney. “Walt embodied every single thing one thinks about when they think of Christmas and the spirit of Santa.”
Then came last year.
In early December, Walt was diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma. Things went downhill quickly. The cancer spread across his body, and by the time treatment started, it was a little too late. He underwent two rounds of chemo. Then immunotherapy. His cotton-white hair started falling out by the fistful.
One afternoon, Walt visited the Beards and Beers local barbershop. Walt told the stylist he wanted her to shave his beard off.
“Take it off?” said the stylist.
“We’ve got to,” Walt said. “It’s coming out in clumps.”
Forty-five years he wore a beard. But on that day Santa left the barbershop with smooth cheeks.
And the dominoes kept falling. His health deteriorated. His strength left him. His friends gathered around his bedside to hold his hand, just to hear him offer a weak “Ho, ho, ho.”
“He wasn’t just a Santa impersonator,” said a 34-year-old who remembers his first visit with Walt. “That man WAS Santa Claus.”
The young man remembers taking his son to visit Santa one year in a crowded public place. While he was waiting in line, Walt singled him out of the crowd. Walt asked the young father whether he was okay.
The man began to weep and told Walt that, no, he was not okay. His wife had just passed away, and the man was barely hanging on.
Walt rose from his throne and embraced the young father. He prayed with the man publicly. He held the young man against his red-velvet chest.
“It’s what you would have expected from a saint.”
A few days ago, early in the morning, Walt became a canonized saint when he rejoined his daughters.
But make no mistake, Walt is not dead. Not even close. He lives. Thank God he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.