by Larry Austin
This Christmas marks 20 years that Norm Cerrillo of Grand Island has been making glad the heart of childhood.
Cerrillo is the Santa Claus at Kelly's Country Store, where parents and children line up hours ahead of his arrival down the chimney just for that moment to talk.
He's been Santa so long and seen so many children that he's seeing children of children who sat with him years ago to talk.
"I'm on my second generation," Cerrillo said. "I think continuity is so important in children's lives, something that they can count on, and I'm just doing my part. The picture that (parents are) showing their children is the same guy. I haven't changed from that picture to today."
Originally, Cerrillo didn't think he was right for the job. For years the late Mike Kelly asked him to don the red suit.
"One year he came to my house and begged me to come and see the Santa that he had in his store," Cerrillo said. "The guy was terrible. These children, the looks on their faces were of disbelief."
"I'm motorcycles and leather, and I never thought that I could do it," Cerrillo explained. Though he said he "rolled with outlaw gangs" and was a hellraiser, things changed after he married his own Mrs. Claus, Katherine.
What started as a week and a half gig as a favor to Kelly turned into a 20-year love affair with his job, even after a less than auspicious start.
"The first time I came down the chimney my hat fell off, belt come undone," he said. "And so I was walking back and forth talking, and then I realized then the power of this red suit. Those children could have cared less."
For the record, Cerrillo is 100 percent real. No fake beard, no white wig, no pillow for a gut. And like Santa, he hasn't missed a day of work, even when a severe attack of rheumatoid arthritis in 2003 knocked him for a loop.
What does it take to be a good Santa?
"You've got to love children," said Cerrillo, who has five children and seven grandchildren of his own, including one "elf," named Miranda. Anyone can wear the suit, but to be a good Santa takes a certain magic with children.
"I've spend time with these children, and I let them talk to me, and I'll answer any of their questions," Cerrillo said.
Miranda Oursler has been an elf for her grandfather for three years and knows from working with him that Santa exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.
"He's amazing. He knows exactly what to say to the kids. People come from everywhere just to see him," Oursler said. "When he has that suit on, it's like magic. I will forever believe in Santa after being an elf and watching him."