TREMONT, Maine — Clyde Carter may be gone, but his spirit is being kept alive on Mount Desert Island this Christmas.
The friends and relatives of Carter, who died two months ago, have decided to continue with an annual holiday program the late lobsterman started 10 years ago.
Carter, 59, died Oct. 10 on Route 3 in Trenton when he had a heart attack while driving his minivan home from Ellsworth. Were he still alive, according to his family, this would be the 10th straight year he donned a Santa Claus outfit — the last few years with the help of the local fire department — and delivered toys to needy families in Tremont and Southwest Harbor on Christmas Eve.
Michelle Carter, one of Clyde Carter’s daughters, said last week that about 30 people, many of them relatives of her father, are making sure that little boys and girls who otherwise might not get Christmas presents will get some this year. They have recruited a man to play Santa and, with the help of the fire department, were planning to deliver toys and needed presents to local families again Wednesday night.
“We delivered to 42 kids last year,” she said. “He wouldn’t want it to stop.”
Clyde Carter’s family said his first Santa appearance was in 1999, at the behest of a family friend who ran a local day care center. A man who appeared as Santa at the center the previous year was unable to do it, they said, and so the owner asked Carter if he would.
So Clyde Carter took the part, donning the Santa suit and then laughing “ho-ho-ho” and asking the children what they wanted for Christmas.
One little boy’s request moved their father to take the role further, they said.
“All he wanted was some shoes that fit,” Keri Seavey, another daughter of Carter’s, said of the little boy. “That really got to [my father].”
Carter couldn’t get the boy’s plea out of his mind, so he found out what size the boy needed and went out and bought a pair, his daughters said in separate interviews recently. A few days later, Carter dressed up again as Santa, took the gift-wrapped shoes and a couple of toys to the home of the boy’s family, and knocked on the door on Christmas Eve.
“The boy was so excited,” Michelle Carter said. “We found out later the boy had to call everybody and tell them Santa had been to his house.”
The boy wasn’t the only one who got a kick out of the visit, according to Christy Rumill, Clyde Carter’s granddaughter. Her granddad also loved it.
“He had the biggest smile on his face,” Rumill said. “He always said the only reward he wanted was seeing the smiles on their faces.”
Rumill, who in past years has dressed up as an elf and helped her grandfather make deliveries on Christmas Eve, said she planned to reprise the role this year.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Rumill said. “Some of [the children] are so excited they can’t even talk.”
Seavey said that, for several years, her father kept his local appearances as Santa Claus a secret from everyone except his family. Even after the fire department signed on to chauffeur him in a fire engine on his appointed rounds, the firefighters kept mum, too.
“He wanted it to be a secret,” Seavey said. “He wanted [the children] to think it was Santa.”
It was last year, when Carter started going around town asking for money to support the program, that it became common knowledge he was involved in the community effort, according to Seavey. Still, he never acknowledged he was the Santa, she said. People didn’t really know until after Carter’s fatal heart attack, when local media reported on the accident and about Carter’s Santa tradition.
Seavey said that though her father never wanted attention for what he did, his family is glad that he is getting recognition for his generosity and big heart. Seavey paused for a moment while talking on the phone to maintain her composure while talking about her dad.
“I think he deserved it for a long time,” Seavey said.
Wayne Patton, Tremont’s assistant fire chief, said he was friends with Carter for more than two decades. He said he had his fire department radio on at the time of Carter’s accident in October and heard scanner traffic about it before he knew who was in the vehicle.
“It was just like someone hitting you in the chest with a mallet,” Patton said of finding out about his friend’s death. “When Clyde had a heart attack, that about took the wind out of my sails.”
Patton, who in recent years has driven the firetruck as it carried Carter on his rounds, said that after the initial shock, it didn’t take long for Carter’s family to resolve to keep the Secret Santa program going. He said when he found out it was going to continue, he knew right away he wanted to help keep it going, too.
“I’ll keep doing it as long as I can,” Patton said. “The fire department wants to stay involved with it.”
Michelle Carter said her mother, Phyllis “Tillie” Carter, is still involved in the family effort, even though she suffered a stroke this past summer. Her mother can’t help wrap presents this year, her daughter said, but she has gone on some of the shopping trips to help pick out toys.
“She’s helping out some,” Carter said.
Other area groups and businesses also helped out. Michelle Carter’s employer, Maine Point, helped to raise money for gifts, as did Gott’s Store, Southwest Food Mart, McKinley’s Market, Carroll’s Drug Store and the local Lioness Club. Donations to the program also can be made to the Tremont-Southwest Harbor Secret Santa Fund at the Southwest Harbor branch of Bar Harbor Bank & Trust.
This year, Brian Harkins promised to take over Carter’s role as Santa. It was Harkins who was Santa at the day care center before Carter took over the role.
But Harkins fell ill on Christmas Eve morning, according to Michelle Carter, and Clyde Carter’s nephew Robert Hamblem ended up playing Santa this year.
Patton said that the first year he drove Carter around during Santa’s deliveries, he was a little nervous about tagging along. He wasn’t sure how he would fit in with the tradition or how people would react to a firetruck pulling up unexpectedly outside their homes on Christmas Eve.
But at their first stop, Carter insisted that Patton get out of the firetruck and walk to the door with him, he said. He did so, and lost all his apprehension when the door opened and the children saw Santa standing outside with presents.
“Their faces would light right up and their eyes would sparkle,” Patton said. “From that point on, I said, ‘I’m hooked on this.’”
Patton said that adults involved in the tradition, whether parents of the kids who get presents or volunteers in the program, can’t help but be affected by it, too.
“It makes you feel good, like you’ve done something worthwhile,” Patton said. “We’re doing this to honor Clyde and the spirit of Christmas, because that is what Clyde was all about.”