MANKATO — Clark Oftedahl may not have been born to play Santa Claus, but he identified with that persona early on.
“He always wanted to be Santa, even as a kid,” said his sister Judy Ledwein, who recalls the ungainly image of a 12-year-old boy decked out in fake beard and ad-libbed Claus garb, regaling his family at Christmas.
“It wasn’t pretty,” she said.
But Oftedahl as a man came to grow into the role so adroitly that he became the community’s gold standard for seasonal portrayers of the jolly old elf.
Oftedahl, who died of cancer Saturday at 73, took his love for kids, his cherubic smile and a right-on white beard and parlayed it into a 25-year stint as Santa Claus.
He was a 15-year fixture at Madison East Center, and heard kids’ Christmas wishes at Wal-Mart for four years before branching out to all manner of places, parties and events.
In recent years he even played his role after Christmas by appearing at the Lake Crystal Area Recreation Center’s annual Santa’s Fun Day activities event, this year slated for Dec. 27.
His health forced him to cancel this time around, and that upset him, Ledwein said.
“That’s what he was living for this year; that’s the one thing he wanted to do.”
Oftedahl donated money each year to the event and was such a key part of it that, out of respect, Santa’s Fun Day will be sans Santa this year. The center’s designated explanation for inquiring young minds: Santa had to stay home because he has a cold.
Oftedahl as Santa had a keen memory for families who made return visits each year, and his signature act was ... his signature. All children he saw would receive a “Santa” written on the backs of their hands in bright red cursive.