In Alleghany County, Christmas is never far from conscious thought. It is difficult to drive far on any road without seeing a hillside covered with rows of Frasier Firs. According to a USDA report almost 900,000 Christmas trees were shipped out of Alleghany in 2012. Christmas and all that surrounds the holiday are an integral part of our county.
For Sam and Julia Simmons, Christmas takes on an even stronger presence in their daily lives. Wrapped in a full white beard and styled mustache, complimented with twinkling eyes, Sam embodies Santa Claus. And Julia fully embraces the role of Mrs. Claus.
Sam grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. At age 13, he and his family moved to Raleigh, NC. He attended Broughton High School just blocks away from the capital grounds. After graduation he wound his way through undergraduate studies and then to dental school.
In 1971, Sam joined the US Air Force and served there as a dentist. He was stationed in England where he met a young local woman, Julia. They were married 1973 and a year later Sam and his new bride returned to the United States. They opened a dental practice in King, NC in 1975 and served patients there for over 30 years.
As Sam worked to establish his practice, Julia worked in the dental office and poured herself into their growing family. Then at age 27, she considered returning to school. Julia did not think she would do well in college as she had not been tracked towards college in England. She took a tentative step by enrolling in Surry Community College (SCC) and never looked back. Over the course of time, she graduated from SCC, then Salem College. She received a scholarship to Wake Forest University where she received a masters degree in counseling. She finished up with a PHD in human services and counseling from Cappella University.
While Sam served the dental needs of the King community, Julia worked with the Wake Forest Medical School to help internal medicine residents become more aware of the mental health needs of their patients. She also worked with others in the community to develop a suicide prevention program in Stokes County. They jokingly refer to themselves as the Doctors Simmons – dental and mental.
The Simmons’ residency in Alleghany County was an incremental process. They began by looking for a weekend home, focusing their search in southwest Virginia. There they met a man who told them that he had a small farm for sale in Alleghany County. They made arrangements to view the farm and found it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for. On their way out, the man said, “Oh, there is a house for sale just up the road. You may want to take a look at it.” They pulled into the drive and fell in love with the house and Alleghany County. After Sam’s retirement, they moved to Alleghany fulltime and bought a new home with a breathtaking view.
Sam and Julia immediately began plugging into the community. They sing in the Highland Camerata and are active in promoting the arts. With some 25 years of mental health intervention experience, Julia worked with others to develop Alleghany Lives, a suicide prevention program. Sam volunteers as a tutor at Sparta Elementary School. They are active in Mountain Laurel Moravian Fellowship in Laurel Springs.
Then in 2005, a question steered Sam and Julia into a different service direction. A child saw Sam with his white beard and a touch of red clothing. The boy, in a moment of pure innocence, asked Sam, “Are you Santa Claus?” Sam laughs as he recalls that in spite of momentous efforts, many children were always afraid of him as a dentist. Now, he had the chance to go from someone feared by children to someone revered.
Santa Sam was born.
Surely making the transformation to Santa would be an easy one. Put on a red suit, polish a perfect “Ho, Ho, Ho,” and listen to the kid’s requests. But, it was one of those early requests that struck Sam with the seriousness of his new role.
A shy girl climbed onto his lap and as is sometimes the case, she went silent. Santa Sam probed for her Christmas wish but the girl remained quiet. Finally Santa suggested a Barbie and the little girl nodded enthusiastically. She climbed down and rushed over to take her mother’s hand. As she moved to leave, she suddenly rushed back to Santa Sam and exclaimed, “I know what I want for Christmas.” Santa Sam leaned forward and asked her request. “I would like my grandmother to be cured of cancer.”
Sam struggled to maintain his composure. He promised to ask his elves to pray for her grandmother. To fulfill that promise he asked members of his church to pray for this child’s request.
This revealed the true role of Santa to Sam and Julia. They now use Santa as a vehicle to emphasize giving to others. Sometimes they share the Nativity Story using a model to tell about the greatest gift of all – the birth of Jesus. Their message whether secular or religious is one of faith, hope and love.
The funds generated through their role as Santa and Mrs. Claus are plowed back into the community. The Simmons support Camp New Hope in Glendale Springs where the staff minister to children with life-threatening illnesses. They also support the Solid Rock Food closet backpack program, help buy art and music supplies for local schools, and support the animal rescue program. Through their giving, Christmas lasts all year for Sam and Julia.
A year round beard, a red Jeep, the wire rimmed glasses, and the rosy cheeks required the question be posed to Sam, “You know you are not really Santa – right?”
Sam only responded with a smile – a smile that hinted of a secret – a secret whose answer is only known to him and Julia.
For more information on Sam and Julia visit http://www.blueridgesanta.com