Remembrances of Christmases past

Published 11:12 am Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What started out as a part-time holiday job for Donna Strother Deekens became a personal tradition that’s made a lasting impression on her life. For many years she was a Snow Queen with “The Real Santa” at the Miller & Rhoads Department Store in Richmond. This led her to write four books related to the experience.

Deekens will be the guest author at The Peanut Patch in Courtland on Saturday, Nov. 28, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. There and then she’ll meet with the public to autograph copies of her books, available for purchase:

• “Christmas at Miller & Rhoads: Memoirs of a Snow Queen;”

• “Santaland: A Miller & Rhoads Christmas,” with illustrations by Sandra Jett Ball;

• “Virginia’s Legendary Santa Trains,” co-written with Doug Riddell; and

• “The Real Santa of Miller & Rhoads: The Extraordinary Life of Bill Strother.”

A student at the Westhampton College of the University of Richmond in 1971, Deekens was majoring in journalism and theater when she applied for a Christmas job at the store. She found that a young lady was needed as a Snow Queen to assist Santa Claus.

“My background was in theater and music and I thought maybe I was good fit,” Deekens said. “As a child, I visited Santa there.”

She added that “everybody from Tidewater,” and even busloads of people from North Carolina would come up to see this particular jolly old elf. Herself dressed in a bridal-style dress and equipped with a bit of training, Deekens also met with the youngsters as they waited their turn.

One Christmas followed another and Deekens continued in her role, which she evidently grew to love.

“It just kind of special helping Santa,” she recalled. “I got the bug and I just continued it on.”

In fact, Deekens served as the winter royalty through 1989; the store closed in 1990, but she continued playing the role at Thalheimer’s from 1990-1991.

In her time at the store, Deekens worked with two Santas. One was Arthur “Chuck” Hood, who she remembered from when she was a child, and Dan Rowe. Nor was Deekens the only Snow Queen; there were three and they’d alternate.

One of the notable features about this store’s Santa was that he would say the child’s name when he or she approached.

“Knowing names was the thing,” Deekens said. “The Snow Queen was the key. Kids were amazed.”

This was a tradition started by Bill Strother, the original “Real Santa Claus,” who became the subject of one of her books. At one time he was known as “The Human Spider” because he climbed buildings. His reputation attracted the attention of silent film comedian Harold Lloyd, who used Strother in his film, “Safety Last.”

“It was sort of ironic that I would end up becoming a Snow Queen,” she said, adding that the role was also originated by Strother.

“He set the state literally and figuratively on the map,” Deekens said from her home in Midlothian. “The store was looking for something magical.”

As mentioned, she continued the role for just two more years at Thalheimer’s

“I was busy being a mom, but would do it for a few private parties,” Deekens said. “After 20 years, I had quite a few stories. People kept talking about it as if it were just yesterday.”

The impetus for writing a book came in 2008. Deekens and one of her girlfriends went to a book signing for “Under the Clock: The Story of Miller & Rhoads,” by George Bryson, an executive vice president at the store for many years, and Earle Dunford, who wrote for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and is a journalism professor.

“I said it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Deekens told them about writing her own memoir, and they replied, “Why don’t you?”

She observed that “Under the Clock,” did quite well because people wanted that nostalgia.

After contacting History Press, a proposal was submitted in February 2009.

“It was not just the stories that I remembered. I interviewed other Snow Queens and Santas and customers and what it meant to them,” Deekens said, who added that “Christmas at Miller & Rhoads: Memoirs of a Snow Queen” was dedicated to her father, who died that July.

The success of that book encouraged her to write a children’s book, “Santaland: A Miller & Rhoads Christmas,” which came out in 2010.The book on the Santa Trains, written in 2013 with Doug Riddell, features a chapter on the train that ran Sedley from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. Deekens had participated in one that ran from Richmond to Ashland, where Santa and the Snow Queen would await the arrival of the children and parents, often numbering in the hundreds and up to 1,500.

“I’m happy to say they’ve [the books] done well,” Deekens said.

Judy Riddick of The Peanut Patch said that Deekens was already familiar with Western Tidewater through her college roommate, Donna Kingery Hudgins, formerly of Franklin. Deekens’ visit this Saturday comes through her own contact with Riddick. She herself also has fond memories of trips to the Miller & Rhoads with her children and grandchildren to see whom Riddick also called “The Real Santa Claus.”

Up until last year, the family photos taken at the store were used in past holiday catalogs.

“It brings back many, many fond memories for a lot of people,” Riddick said of the store. “That was just part of Christmas. Miller & Rhoads was such an icon. It was the epitome of old-time shopping.”

When she was learned of Deekens’ books and offer, Riddick said, “It just had to be. I had to make it happen.

“I think we’ll have a very good crowd.”

The store is at 27478 Southampton Parkway in Courtland. Call 757-653-2028.