World War II vet has been Santa for a quarter-century

For more than two decades, 86-year-old Bob Rogers has been one of Santa Claus' helpers in Wichita. What makes a good Santa?

"Having love in your heart," Rogers said.

And he shows it with plenty of enthusiasm.

"I'm not one of those store Santas. They generally just say hi to kids," Rogers said. "They're good, but they're not animated. I'm animated."

He certainly was during his Santa visit to the Dole VA Medical Center earlier this month. Besides handing out candy canes to staff and patients, he enthusiastically pushed the wheelchair of an elderly patient.

"He has the gift of gab," said Irene Rogers, his wife of 60 years. "You can't have a shy Santa Claus."

The only year Rogers has missed playing Santa since he started 24 years ago was 2008. He had colon cancer surgery that December — a month after their 57-year-old son, Tom, died of colon cancer.

Life's long list of experiences has taught this World War II veteran the importance of doing what you can at the moment.

Besides cancer and a pacemaker for his heart, Rogers has had to deal with hearing loss as the result of shrapnel wounds he sustained shortly after the D-Day landing at Normandy in 1944.

"I won't say I'm on borrowed time," he said. "I'm on extra time."

And he's enjoying every minute of it. Especially his time as Santa.

"I wouldn't do this if I didn't have a lot of fun," Rogers said. "I feel like I'm giving back."

He spent much of his working career as a food salesman before retiring in the mid-1980s. One of his contacts at a new Dillons store asked him to dress up as a turkey for Thanksgiving.

Rogers agreed but found the costume too heavy. A year later he switched to playing Santa for the store, then expanded that role to other places around town.

He saved enough from two years as Dillons' Santa to buy his own red suit, but has never charged to play Santa since then.

Slim and trim, he needs a pillow to fill out the suit. But it's not any pillow. It has a battery that allows his belly to jiggle.

"Like a bowl full of jelly," Rogers said.

He also has to replace the white beard from time to time.

"They get a little cruddy up front," Rogers said.

He's cut down some on his Santa stops, but he still makes about a half-dozen or so each Christmas season. He makes appearances at gatherings for children, churches, private events , the VA Medical Center and nursing homes.

Rogers knows how to connect with all ages.

"Most older folks are just kids with wrinkles," Rogers said. "I don't push myself on a frightened child. They have to come to Santa. They generally come around because most love Santa."

And for those who don't believe in Santa, he has a response:

"Ho, ho, ho! Santa loves you."