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.
As he told Mankato magazine four years ago, he held a special place in his heart for children whose wishes he couldn’t fulfill.
“The tear-jerkers are when they’ll come up and they say they’ll give up all their presents if they can just have Daddy or Mommy home, and then you find out they just died of cancer or in an auto accident.”
Oftedahl also abided by the cardinal rule of all mall Santas: Never promise anything.
“I take all requests, but what you get sometimes isn’t what you asked for. I tell them to try to be thankful for what you have.”
As Oftedahl grew older and acquired grandchildren, his morphing into Santa made for some dicey situations.
His daughter Crystal Oftedahl said her father, dressed as Santa, visited her 5-year-old daughter’s class years ago.
“That’s my grandpa. My grandpa’s Santa Claus,” she announced to the class.
None of the kids believed her, nor Oftedahl when he tried to back her up on it, and she came home sobbing.
Ledwein said one of her grandchildren, a 5-year-old boy, took a worldly view that belied his age when told of Oftedahl’s death.
“Oh, well,” he said. “There’s other Santas.”
That may be. But to people such as Dave Wilkinson, the only Santa was Oftedahl.
Wilkinson is a member of the Hector Fire Department, which Oftedahl dealt with on a business level as a sales representative for a charitable gambling pull-tab company.
Nearly 20 years ago Oftedahl approached Wilkinson about playing Santa for children in the Renville County community. It turned into an annual fire department holiday event.
Wilkinson said Oftedahl was Santa Claus to the core.
“He took the same amount of time with the first kid as with the 100th kid. That kind of drove the parents crazy, but that’s the way he did it. It was all about the kids.”