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It’s in the beard — local Santa turns heads

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Updated: January 26, 2014 6:22AM



Everywhere John Kella goes, he draws attention. Especially this time of year.

The retired land surveyor has a beard on his chin that’s as white as the snow, and an unmistakable twinkle in his eye.

Everyone knows who he is — even the flight attendant on a November trip he took to Florida, who asked to snap a picture with him.

Kella, a lifelong Joliet resident, is Santa Claus. Ask any child living in the Joliet area, as they have likely been at one of his many local appearances.

Kella, 66, has met children at the Joliet Park District’s Bird Haven Greenhouse each Saturday in December, besides appearances at schools and community centers, breakfasts and brunches around Will County.

“One (boy) said he wanted to touch my beard and pull it, I said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ Then his eyes got really big ­— ‘It is real!’ ” Kella said.

While it hasn’t always been white, the beard has been part of Kella’s look since the 1970s.

His first appearance as Santa Claus was about 20 years ago at a pancake breakfast at his church.

“It was a big hit. I did that for two or three years,” Kella said.

Then a co-worker asked him to make an appearance at a park district breakfast with Santa, which led to a schedule of appearances that has continued to expand over the last 12 years.

Not only does he look the part, his personality fits with the persona, said his wife of 37 years, Patty Kella.

“He just takes it as a compliment any time of the year,” when people recognize him.

“When he starts growing the beard longer ... when you’re at the mall you get the little kids doing a double-take.”

Despite the classic photo of a young child crying on Santa’s lap, Kella said only about 15 percent of the children visiting him cry. And the criers are typically between 1- and 3-years old, he said.

Sometimes people bring their dogs for a photo with Santa, Kella said. He’s even posed with an opossum.

Even parents and grandparents want a picture of themselves with Santa.

“You’re never too old for Santa,” Kella said. “I’ve always loved Christmastime.”

Five years ago, Kella started riding a float in the city of Joliet’s annual Light Up the Holidays parade. Initially, it was a shock to see crowds of people cheering him on. But he got used to it.

His own children, now grown, are also used to his side job, he said.

“It’s always a thrill to see all the kids,” Kella said. “The best part of doing it is the kids.

“People always worry that they’re taking too much of my time,” Kella said.

“But I enjoy it so much. Take all the time you want.”



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