Sergeant Santa: A tribute

This year will be Richmond’s first Christmas without Sergeant Santa. To honor this beloved Richmond icon of holiday cheer, we’ve put together a tribute in quotes from those who knew him best or were touched by his good deeds. Get your tissues!

This will be Richmond’s first Christmas without Sergeant Santa, the city’s number one icon of holiday cheer. Former Richmond police detective Sgt. Dalton Rotruck “Ricky” Duling, the man who filled that role since the early 70s, died in August.

The Sergeant Santa tradition started in 1973 when Sgt. Duling grew a beard for an undercover assignment. His close resemblance to The Man in Red caught the attention of a sporting goods store who offered him the chance to portray St. Nick in a commercial. Duling declined at first, but soon got to thinking about a cause that was close to his heart: the John Marshall Youth Camp for underprivileged children, sponsored by the Fraternal Order of the Police (he was a member of John Marshall Lodge 2). Duling struck a deal to exchange a TV appearance for sports equipment for the kids.

Although he looked the part, Santa was still a role Duling played grudgingly. However, just a few days before Christmas that year, he realized that playing Santa would make the lives of under privileged children brighter. He also thought that it could change the widely-held belief that police officers are not always a force for good. How could anyone refuse a carload of toys, even if it was a squad car? From then on, every Christmas, Sgt. Dulin would make his rounds to low income areas. He’d park his police cruiser, turn on the lights, sound the siren, and invite children to take goodies such as toys, books, candy, and cookies.

The idea of Sergeant Santa eventually grew from one man in a car to a Christmas empire. As the years went on, more volunteers came out of the woodwork with storage space, gifts, and spare hands. The efforts of Sgt. Duling and his elves became Sergeant Santa of Richmond Inc. He became a Richmond tradition featured in parades and visited the sick in hospitals and nursing homes. When Duling retired, Sergeant Santa became a year-round endeavor. Richmond civic groups partnered with him to assist those displaced by fires and to provide provisions to families during other holidays. His “Chief Elf” Ruby Briggs Clanton was the mastermind who made sure the operation ran smoothly. She passed away in June of this year.

To honor Sgt. Duling, RVANews has put together a tribute in quotes from those who knew him best or were touched by his good deeds. Take a look…

Bill Bevins

“If he had five minutes he could talk to you for twenty.”

Bill Bevins is the host of The Bill Bevins Wake Up Show on Lite 98. He met Sergeant Santa in the late 80s while working for B103. “Somewhere along the way we adopted him as our Christmas charity” Bevins says. The two did many appearances together to spread the word.

Sergeant Santa was known to speak enthusiastically of his charity and those he had touched with his work. Bevins reminisced about the promotional events they did together. The retired-cop-turned-Santa could even be found in night clubs soliciting donations for Sergeant Santa.

“It was Ricky, he was a former cop…he was just as comfortable going through the night club asking people [to donate] as he was at the shoe store…it didn’t make any difference to him…we used to do a thing at Fanny’s…you could come get dollar three drinks and make a donation to Sergeant Santa”

Being summoned by Santa was serious business. When Bevins arrived, he would be briefed by the “Chief Elf” then allowed to go back and see Santa.

“I would get a call from Ruby at work and she would say Santa needs to see you, and that meant come down here now. That didn’t mean get back with us or call me… [It meant] whatever you’re doing come down here and see Santa. And if you didn’t, Ruby would call you back and say ‘Where are you? I told you Santa needs to see you.’”

Bevins saw a huge change in Ricky as he transformed from cop to Sergeant Santa. The role consumed him.

“When I met him he was still the ex-cop Ricky…he just started this whole thing…As time went on he literally became Santa Claus. He wasn’t playing Santa Claus anymore. This was his life; this is what he did every day. He got up and he went to that shop, he got together donations, and he went to visit sick kids…When we first started he would tell me cop stories. You would hear these spicy stories about stuff he said or did. But as time went on those completely went away and you would hear the story of the little girl with Leukemia who hugged his neck last week and made him cry.”

“He was just a loving guy, just the sweetest man who happened to be this bad ass cop.”

“It was his whole life and it was Ruby’s whole life. The two of them were such an amazing team with him being the symbol of whole thing, and Ruby had all the work ethic to actually make it happen. Those people worked twelve, fourteen hour days, six days a week, seven days a week for nothing. Nobody else is going to do that. It’s just not going to happen. You’re not going to have the combination of those two personalities.”

Vanessa Duling-St. Clair

“He was always happy, kind, loving, and giving.”

Vanessa Duling-St. Clair is Sergeant Santa’s niece and has many fond memories growing up near her “Uncle Dalton.” Her father, Frank S. Duling, a former Chief of Police, allowed Sgt. Duling to use a police car to deliver his first ever donations (as long as he reimbursed the station for its use).

She also says he was probably the winner every year in his neighborhood contest for best Christmas decorations.

“He went all out…he actually rigged a Victrola and had his tree turning in the window. It was a silver tree and had blue lights focused on it, it was beautiful. He would play Christmas music into his yard from a jukebox he had in his basement.”

Providing for the disadvantaged was not Sgt. Duling’s only goal; he also aimed to foster better relations between the community and Richmond police.

“He wanted to give the children in the community a different look at a police officer — as a friend instead of always coming for some emergency. He wanted to let them know he was their friend and so were the other officers.”

All those interviewed had something to say about his sense of humor and love of children.

“He came in as Sergeant Santa and sat down with my two children who were about four and six at that time. He said ‘Tell Santa what you want for Christmas’ and went through the whole routine and said ‘Okay, children you be good, I’ll be seeing you soon.’ It was only a few days before Christmas and off he goes out the door…Then the kids go ‘Uncle Dalton sure makes a good Santa doesn’t he?’ They went along with him and I thought it was so funny.”

Tanya Kelly

“Everywhere Dad and I would go, just on our daily errands…‘Hey Sarg, Hey Sarg’, they would call out, ‘I remember you, and if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have had a Christmas!’ And then they would say ‘I remember up in John Marshall Lodge.’ People everywhere had been touched by him. You just got used to it. When you went somewhere you just knew we were going to stop and there were going to be a lot of stories.”

Tanya Kelly is Sergeant Santa’s Daughter. Even though he did not start Sergeant Santa of Richmond Inc. until she was an adult, Kelly remembers his work at the John Marshall Youth Camp he helped support.

Sgt. Duling’s father, who was also a police officer, died in a car accident when Duling was 18-months-old. During the Depression, his mother opened a boarding house to help support the family. These experiences allowed him to relate to the kids at the camp and the others he helped.

“He said he wanted to help children because he knew what it was like. A lot of these underprivileged kids did not have a father or a good family environment. He felt like if he could at least get them for a week and have them up there he could make a difference.”

“As far as discipline, he had his own little ways. You were either sent somewhere or you might have the go and read. It was never a physical confrontation…and there was always a lesson learned in whatever he came up with.”

“He always had a story for somebody and he had such a good memory. No matter what the situation was…he was so quick I never figure out how he could remember everything…right up until he got sick…He was just sharp as a tack.”

“He was always telling jokes. Everything was funny. He made humor out of everything…He was always a prankster and a jokester. It was on-going all the time.”

“No matter what it was, everything happened for a reason. And you might not know today or tomorrow, or next week, or in six months or even next year. But somehow that piece of the puzzle would come into play and it would work out.”

Aubrey Davis

“He was a man of great compassion…He dedicated so much time to that, even keeping up with his job. Some of the times he would go out on Christmas Eve it was very cold, maybe snowing, sleeting, or raining. Oh, he would still go — made no difference to him.”

Davis is a former Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney who first met Sergeant Santa when both men were police officers in the 1960s. When Davis was Commonwealth’s Attorney, Duling used the conference room in the John Marshall Courts building to store comic books and candy before acquiring his shop on West Marshall Street. This was the start of Sergeant Santa’s work.

“He came to me one day, and he always called me boss and I always reminded him that the Chief of Police was his boss. But anyway, he said ‘Boss, I’ve got this idea, I would like to help the kids that don’t get things at Christmas. I was wondering if it would be okay if I used the conference room to store candy and comic books’… For a couple of months…we placed our feet on the boxes so we had somewhere to put them.”

“He started collecting all sorts of stuff, anything anybody would give him. Furniture or anything of that nature…he would give it out to people that didn’t have the things they needed to live…His heart was as big as his body.”

Jeff Hume

“He was one of a kind. I don’t think I have met anyone quite as kind and generous. He trusted everyone. He gave his time freely and was tireless working at his cause.”

Hume met Sergeant Santa when he was a member of Richmond’s Rotary Club. He headed Rotary Club program that fixed used bikes for children and donated them to Sergeant Santa. They would repair up to 100 bikes for him every holiday season.

“He had story after story of marvelous things that happened to him without him even asking for it…Either donations or people coming in at the last minute or finding a place to store his stuff and house his operation.”

“He was able to make use of all of the things he was given. If he was running short of something, or a couple times things would get stolen from his shop, people would come through with donations of new stuff…It was amazing the support he got from the community.”

Jeanne Walls

“He wasn’t a paid department store Santa. He was Sergeant Santa 365 days a year.”

Walls coordinated fundraisers and other events benefiting Sergeant Santa of Richmond Inc. during their 30-year friendship. Wall’s often played his Mrs. Claus in the Richmond Christmas Parade. This year she worked to put a float together for the parade dedicated to his memory.

“You could call him at 3:00 in the morning and say the next door neighbor’s house burnt down and they had three kids…and he would show up with clothes and toys and whatever the family needed.”

“If I didn’t talk to him for a week, two weeks, or a month and something went wrong he seemed to know it. He would pick up the phone and say ‘Just checking on you, had you on my mind.’ The whole situation would change.”

“We had adults who would come up to us on the [Richmond Christmas] parade route and bring their children and say ‘You’ve got to meet this man. If it had not been for him I wouldn’t have had a Christmas.’”

We realize that because Sergeant Santa impacted so many people in the Richmond area, there are more thoughts and wishes to include. If you have anything to say about the man who made Christmas bright for hundreds of Richmond families, feel free to share in the comments section.

Image caption and credit: Arneida M. Smith celebrating her 91st birthday with a kiss from Sergeant Santa, portrayed by Ricky Duling. December 23, 1982. Photograph by Rich Crawford. Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center. (If you’re interested in seeing more images like these, stop by the Valentine Richmond History Center’s website to learn more about their digital archive of photographs highlighting the history of the River City.)

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Leah Small

Leah served as our editorial intern during the Fall of 2009. She is a VCU student who thoroughly loves Richmond, its niche culture, and all there is to see and do.

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