For the past 11 years, Derek Dugan has taken up residence at the North Pole. When he’s not living with the elves, Santa Derek lives in his seasonal home on the south rim of Lake Lanier in Buford with his wife of 27 years.
Dugan, who worked in the corporate world for many years, was relocated by his former employer from Orlando, Florida, to Atlanta in 1996, just a week before the Summer Olympics opened. He and his family began to establish roots in Gwinnett, with his daughters graduating from Gwinnett County schools. Then suddenly, after 14 years of working in Atlanta, Dugan was laid off.
At the same time, his younger brother fell ill. Dugan felt the timing of his job loss would allow him to care for and bank some quality time with his brother as he fought for his life, battling cancer. Unfortunately, it was a battle the younger Dugan would not win.
“The mental strain of losing my job then losing my brother put me in a bad place,” Dugan said.
With no direction or motivation, he found himself aimlessly pacing through his house one day when his wife looked at him and said, “What are you going to do? You have to do something.”
A creative at heart with many artistic skills and passions, Dugan answered a help-wanted ad for a Christmas set director. Dressing for the job he wanted, he wore a black suit with a red vest and green tie to the interview. When he walked in, the manager saw him and asked, “Are you here for the set manager position?”
“Yes ma’am,” Dugan replied.
He was stunned that even before the first interview question was asked, she matter-of-factly retorted, “I can’t hire you.”
Feeling strongly that this was the very thing he had needed to pull him out of his sadness and confused by why she wouldn’t even grant him an interview, he implored, “Why not?”
To his pleasant surprise, the woman turned to a smile and replied, “Well, because you’re Santa!”
She wasn’t the first to notice the similarities between Derek and the jolly red man. While employed in the corporate world a few years prior, Dugan had attended a public speaking training seminar when he had a life changing encounter.
“I had long hair and a beard — although it was brown back then,” Dugan joked. “The director of the program asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about being Santa? I mean, you really look like Santa!’”
Sure, he had donned a Santa suit a few times for parties and small gatherings with friends and family but never seriously entertained the notion of becoming Santa — or what that would entail. And here he was again, years later, sitting in this non-interview, hearing the same message.
Dugan needed a job, but the manager was intent that “set designer” wasn’t going to be it. She explained how Santa was booked each January, and this late in the season, there were simply no available jobs, but she was determined he was to become St. Nick. She invited Dugan to stay for a group interview where the lively bunch told stories about why they loved Christmas.
A few days later, Dugan’s phone rang. It was the manager, offering him a Santa gig. It would be at a mall in Orangeburg, South Carolina. It would mean a month-and-a-half of hotel living and being away from his family during the holidays. Dugan was surprised to hear his wife say, “Go for it!” He did.
When Dugan walked into the virtually empty Orangeburg mall where only a handful of stores were still in business, three teenage boys sitting on a bench shouted, “Yo, Santa, you know where you at?”
Being completely unfamiliar with the area, Dugan did not. But he learned quickly. It was a financially depressed area in what resembled a low-income inner-city. Many of his helpers were older teenagers, and most of them already had children of their own. If he was looking for a cushy, high-profile gig, this wasn’t it.
It wasn’t long until Dugan learned that this was exactly where he was meant to be. He found out it was more than merely dressing up when he first sat in the chair as a series of interactions opened his heart to see people’s needs and gave him an epiphany that this was exactly what he was supposed to do.
One evening, Santa Derek posed for a photo with a young dad and his newborn. The next day, Santa Derek noticed a group of his elves gathered around the computer with a somber look.
“Hey, Santa, do you remember this guy?” one asked as the group showed him a picture on the screen of that young man and his newborn. Dugan remembered. “Well, he was killed in a car accident last night.”
“It struck me very hard that that was the last photo that baby would have with her father,” Dugan said.
After that encounter, Dugan would go back to his hotel room every night and journal about his experiences.
“One of my daughters took those journal pages and had them published into a book for me,” Dugan remembered. “She gave that book to me as a Christmas gift one year, and I’ve cherished it and shared many of the stories on my Facebook page.”
Dugan recalls another story that touched him.
“A young, teenage girl came to me pouring out her heart about all her struggles, and I gave her some advice,” he recounted. “A year later, I looked up and saw this same girl in line to see me.”
The girl was there with her friend, who was giving her a hard time about being too old to see Santa. The girl scorned incredulously, “Santa’s my friend,” as she walked right up and sat on Santa’s lap.
“I remembered her and asked how things had turned out,” Dugan said.
The girl, who had been so distraught the year before, seemed so happy and upbeat this time. She gratefully answered him, “Well, my parents aren’t going to be getting back together, but it’s OK. My dad and I love each other, my mom and I love each other, and everything is going to be fine.”
The girl thanked Santa Derek for sitting and listening to her, saying, “It was exactly what I needed — it was the best Christmas present I ever received!”
“For many of us who put on the suit, we do it because we feel it’s a calling,” Santa Derek said. “As Santa, we deal with so many things people may not realize because we are trusted to hear children’s hearts. When we take our boots off at the end of Christmas Eve and sit down, we are physically tired and emotionally drained but totally fulfilled.”
Santa Derek has put his heart, soul and resources into this investment into others, and at 1,749 years old, he still looks amazing. Having amassed quite a few variations of outfits, he has spent a small fortune on Santa’s wardrobe and focuses on each detail to look the part to perfection with two hours of prep time before each outing with every hair in place, makeup and Santa’s custom, tailored suits he stores in an off-limits closet at the lake.
“My youngest granddaughter, Fiona, was 5 when she wandered into my closet,” Dugan said. She emerged excitedly and ran to her grandfather saying, “Paddy, I know! I know!”
“What do you know?” Dugan asked.
“You’re Santa! I went into your closet and saw your robe!”
“I never answered her,” Dugan said, “but after that, I often caught Fiona keeping a close eye on me.”
Dugan recalls the night a lady walked up to him and his wife at a restaurant and said, “You must play Santa Claus!”
He replied, “No ma’am, I don’t play Santa Claus.”
She argued back, “You have to! Why in the world don’t you play Santa?”
Dugan sat back in the chair, folded his arms, and said, “Because I am Santa Claus.”
“The media portrays the world with violence and evil, and we need more loving, giving and working through the difficult times,” Dugan said, “and there is no other job in the world that brings this much joy.”
Santa Derek has an annual contract with the Lodge at Lake Lanier Islands and Margaritaville and provides entertainment and photo opportunities at private functions. For more information, visit facebook.com/santa