AIKEN - Santa Claus' reputation for perennial vitality left Randy Weeks without a paying job this Christmas.
With a white and gray beard, rosy cheeks and blue eyes, Mr. Weeks had worked as Santa in shopping malls from Aiken to Columbia since 1994.
But Aug. 1, a massive heart attack left Mr. Weeks with complications that cut short his normal Christmas schedule.
A temporary trachea tube is now partially hidden behind Mr. Weeks' beard. He had to have the tracheotomy to correct a sleep apnea problem that developed after his heart attack.
So this Christmas Mr. Weeks is making only small appearances as Santa for charity. He dropped by a few Christmas parties, including one Saturday for the Eureka Fire Department.
He was worried the children who sat on his lap this year would see his trachea tube and be frightened that Santa was not a healthy man.
"I didn't want any kids looking at it and asking questions," he said. "When (mall administration) is paying you for the real beard, they're real funny about your appearance."
Standing at 6-feet-4-inches barefoot and weighing approximately 350 pounds, Mr. Weeks has the perfect physique for Santa.
But because of his weight, he was too heavy for a lab table at Aiken Regional Medical Centers and had to be transported to Columbia for an angioplasty in August, said his doctor, cardiologist Dr. Gregory Eaves.
The angioplasty, performed at Palmetto Richland Memorial Hospital, was needed to clear Mr. Weeks' clogged arteries.
Mr. Weeks remained in the Columbia hospital 20 days. At times his family, including his wife, Debbie, eight children and 11 grandchildren, wondered whether he was going to live, he said.
Mr. Weeks now has approximately 130 pounds to shed before he can have the trachea tube removed, but he looks forward to being a mall Santa again.
"I used to go before Thanksgiving to the beauty shop and have my beard and mustache dyed white. I'd go back about once and have my roots done. I don't have to dye it anymore," said Mr. Weeks, who is 50 years old.
The Santa role began as a favor, but blossomed into a lifestyle.
Mr. Weeks drives a red Suburban with a tag on the front reading "Santa's Sleigh." He calls it the "Southern Sleigh."
"You're like a movie star. Kids think I'm Santa Claus wherever they see me," he said.
Once each of his 11 grandchildren were old enough to recognize "grandpa" as Santa Claus, he sat them down to explain the truth.
"I told them that I am Santa Claus. I slip off at night and go to the North Pole," he said.
Reach Carly Phillips at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org