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Santa Claus is coming to Adrian

ADRIAN -- David Stoner hasn't always been an author, but he has always loved children.

"It's a passion -- I love kids," Stoner said. Anyone knows that if there are kids, I'll be there."

Since 1982, Stoner has been Santa Claus to countless children in the Midwest and across the nation -- and it's obvious that the children and adults love him in return. Stoner will be in Adrian Saturday afternoon for a reading and book-signing event as part of the community's annual Christmas in July celebration. He will host a story time with Santa Claus following the kids' Christmas movie, which begins at 1:30 p.m. in the Adrian Elementary Commons Area.

"Once I was at a mall in Connecticut near a large Macy's, and I was pulling people away from the Macy's Santa because people liked me so much," he remembered. "They said, 'We saw a picture on Facebook, and we came to see you.' The mall had the best year they'd ever had."

Despite the praise, Stoner remains humble and enjoys the opportunities to interact with kids. "There's always room to improve," he added.

Stoner has led a varied life, and at different points has raised livestock and supplied animals for the Sioux Empire Fair, driven a kiddie train at an apple orchard in Harrisburg, S.D., and worked for the Sioux Falls school district. His love of children has never left him, and an inspiration for his first published work, "Dancer's Story," involves a favorite "child" of his.

"I was Santa at the Sioux Empire Mall, and Neil Graff (a former NFL quarterback, though Stoner didn't know this at the time) had brought his son, Ben, to see Santa," he said. "Ben is physically and mentally handicapped, but when he saw me, he ran over, jumped in my lap, and broke my glasses with his excitement."

Since this first joyful meeting, a special relationship has blossomed, and Stoner found further inspiration in Ben's challenges.

"Although he is disabled, he still tries to do everything, no matter what," Stoner said. "He loves the garbage man, and every Thursday, the most fantastic thing happens. Ben gets to wear a Novak Sanitation t-shirt and help his friend the garbage man pick up garbage."

Ben is not able to speak full sentences, but he has a special name for Stoner: 'Hoho.' Consequently, Ben's copy of Dancer's Story is signed 'Love, Hoho.'

Stoner's children's book, "Dancer's Story," involves a reindeer who is born crippled and isn't strong enough to pull Santa's sleigh. With the encouragement of Santa and Santa's veterinarian elf, Elmer, he works to make his legs strong and -- one day -- finally gets his chance.

Besides the example of Ben trying and trying, Stoner drew on his experience with livestock and calves to write the children's book, which he said was something he had always wanted to do.

"When we would raised calves, sometimes one would be born crooked legged and couldn't walk, but within a week or two, it would be strong," Stoner said.

It wasn't certain that Stoner's story would be published -- it took some encouragement from his colleagues for it to happen. When he was working for the Sioux Falls school district, and "before he had thought about publishing," he read his book to elementary school classes, and received a warm reception.

"Everyone said, 'Get it published!' It tells kids that Elmer studied hard in school; when Santa says, 'Dancer, pull the sleigh, and he says I can't, Santa says, 'We never say I can't try," Stoner detailed.

The positive message resonated with a publisher, and the book was published early this year.

Meanwhile, Stoner is working on another book, this time about Rudolph. He chose Dancer the first time because "Rudolph gets all the attention," but chose Rudolph for the second book for a different reason.

"The kids always ask me how Rudolph is doing, and I want to show them that he can be a little naughty as well," said Stoner, assuring that the book will have the same strong inspirational message.

Stoner, entering his 31st season of providing Santa magic to children, exudes enthusiasm. Those 31 years, however, are less than number of years he's had his well-known beard -- 48.

"One day I looked in the mirror and didn't like what I saw," Stoner said. "I'm hiding my looks behind the beard, thank the Lord. It makes me look better, but whenever I shave my head, I look like a biker."

Stoner related what happened when he shaved his head the day after Christmas.

"On Christmas Day, I walked past people who had just seen me as Santa, and they looked at me and whispered, 'Oh, he's a biker,' and got away from me."

Stoner, though, didn't always want to become Santa.

"In 1982, I didn't want to do it, but everyone said, 'No, you look like Santa, you should,'" he remembered.

Stoner said he thought the idea of Santa was a lie, but there was a store that needed a Santa, it gave him the suit, and the rest in history.

Currently, Stoner and his wife are residing in Gardena, California, where they have been for the past year to assist his daughter, who had been seriously ill. Now, Stoner said, she is much improved, and he hopes to move back to the Sioux Falls area by the first of the year. He will be back this summer and fall at many events he's worked in the past, from the apple orchard, the Sioux Falls Family Fest and Adrian's Christmas in July festival. This year will be Stoner's "third or fourth" time in Adrian, and he is glad to be back.

"I take pride in doing it," Stoner said of his Santa work, "and I want to make kids believe as long as they can. I hope to do this for another 30 years, until I'm 100 or something. Then I'll retire."