WHITEHALL, N.Y. (NEWS10) – For well over two decades, children meeting Santa Claus in the town of Whitehall have always met the same person. In fact, many of them know where he lives.
“One Halloween we were trick-or-treating on Adams Street,” recalled Whitehall resident and Granville elementary school teacher Jennifer Dickinson. “My son, Spencer, was 10 or 11, and he goes up to a door and says ‘Hey – can I wait and talk to Santa?'”
The house in question belonged to the family of Colin Thompson, who passed away at age 80 this month after years of donning the jolly red robes of Santa Claus for the Whitehall community – and its neighbors. Starting in the 1990s, Thompson could be seen bringing Christmas to life at community events, area school districts, and the Prospect Center Festival of Trees in Glens Falls.
For many, Thompson was most well-known as the resident Santa Claus at Skene Manor, a historic Gothic-style mansion in the town. When the news of Thompson’s death broke last week, the manor honored his memory on Facebook, with a post that quickly gathered comments from neighbors and well-wishers. They held him in their memory and passed along stories of their own.
“It’s been in segments – not all in one spot,” said Mary Ann Thompson, Colin’s wife, on Friday. “If I’m on Facebook, I read what’s there; others I get from other places. I learned from Colin’s brother that an online group in Dannemora has been making lovely comments, and we haven’t lived there since the 1960s.”
Becoming Santa Claus
The Thompson family moved to Whitehall for work reasons. Colin was working at Great Meadow Correctional Facility – first as an officer, later becoming a corrections counselor – when, one year, a Santa Claus was needed to entertain the kids of employees at a staff holiday party. Thompson heard the call, and donned the red and white.
In Mary Ann’s words, that was where things began to mushroom. After his debut appearance – in 1996, Mary Ann thinks – Colin was asked to act as Santa Claus again for Fort Ann students, and ended up appearing there several times. By the time the year 2000 rolled around, he was known both there and at the Prospect Center, as the Santa who kept on coming back – to the amazement of a generation of kids.
“They were always amazed that it was the same Santa,” said Mary Ann. “At the Prospect Center, it was the same thing.”
At the same time, Colin was becoming heavily involved in the current era of Skene Manor. Two decades after being designated a National Historic Place in 1974 as the home of Whitehall founder Philip Skene, the manor’s future fell into uncertainty. In 1995, an out-of-state party made an offer to buy the manor, and have it moved out of New York in its entirety. A group of Whitehall residents stood up to form Whitehall Skene Manor Preservation, Inc., a nonprofit that raised money for a down payment to purchase the manor that October.
Colin Thompson joined the manor the following year – around the same time his Santa Claus career was taking off – and was one of Skene Manor’s first volunteers following the purchase. While the manor entered into a new era of hosting community events and serving fresh meals during the warmer months, Thompson became an active voice in validating the historic nature of the Gothic-style building, while also making sure it stayed secure.
“We were all new to historic preservation, and Colin was looking into everything,” said former Skene Manor President Catherine Manuele. “He was very thorough and had the respect of everybody. When things would get tense, his calmness would calm that tension right back down.”
Once Skene Manor began holding community events, Thompson’s hollier, jollier persona didn’t take long to show itself. In conversations with NEWS10 and comments on social media, volunteers and neighbors remember him really connecting with every child who got placed on his lap. Those kids remembered him, and he remembered right back. Just this week, that spirit has transcended the end of Thompson’s life.
“I had just come back to work for the last couple days of school after being out sick,” Dickinson recalled. “I get to my mailbox, and find a letter (delivered by Colin’s son-in-law, Dickinson’s coworker) to my daughter, Abby. It had a return address of Colin, care of Mary Ann. I opened it, and was looking at a letter that Abby – who’s 24 this year – wrote when she was 8 years old. When I showed it to my daughter, we both teared up.”
And so it was that kids like the Dickinsons’ knew that Santa Claus lived on Adams Street. They wouldn’t have to wait for Christmas. On that Halloween when Spencer came, demanding an audience with Santa, he got one. Whenever he could, Colin Thompson would don the robe in order to keep the Christmas magic alive, any time of year.
Kate Thompson was already an adult when her dad became Whitehall’s local Santa Claus. She didn’t have kids of her own yet, but friends of hers did – meaning she got to be a part of the local version of the story of Saint Nick.
One year in the early ’00s, Kate held a Christmas party, where some friends brought their children. One friend came with his five young boys, the oldest of whom were just old enough to give up on believing in Santa. Everyone at the house knew who was set to arrive soon, and so the father took to telling his kids a story about just how close the Thompsons were to the big man from the North Pole.
“He started telling his kids a story about how I used to live out in the country, and saw a hunter shooting at a deer that was actually one of Santa’s reindeer – I think it was Comet. He said I chased the hunter off with a frying pan, and now my family’s friends with Santa Claus,” Kate said. “And then soon after, in comes my dad as Santa, singing Christmas songs. It was a pretty big deal.”
When you’re Santa Claus’ daughter, you have to be crafty. Kate’s kids grew up seeing pictures of their grandfather dressed up as Santa, but never saw him donning the getup in person. When one asked their mother what the secret was, she explained that Santa has helpers. People like their grandpa would stand in and gather all the information about what the kids of the world wanted. Even in fiction, Colin was a helper.
Kate lost a sister in a car accident in 2000. That crash tore through the family and meant that Kate’s sister never got to see her father bring joy to the community in the decades to come. Although the Santa Claus role predated that tragedy, both mother and daughter agree that the loss was part of what kept Colin going.
“He spent more than 22 years getting my mom through losing a daughter. I think Santa really helped him to do that,” Kate said.
For Mary Ann, her husband’s support during the loss of her daughter was tremendous – and support, of one kind or another, is a thread that reaches as far back as the family has been in Whitehall. Nine months after coming to town from Dannemora, the young family was displaced by a fire. Mary Ann remembers standing out in the street on a March night, wondering what would come next.
“Then, a Whitehall man offered us a furnished place above his apartment and said we could stay there. I never forgot that. We had been trying to move back to Dannemora – both of our hometowns – but after that, we decided this was the place we were going to stay.”
After that, the family joined hands with their community and never let go. Colin Thompson would join Whitehall’s Skenesborough Volunteer Fire Company, join the local Elk’s Lodge, and become a figurehead in his church. Even though his Santa legacy is what young people tend to remember, it all goes deeper.
Christmas in memory
Colin put down the Santa suit in 2019, due to immune system issues after becoming diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that forms in white blood cells. He spent five years receiving treatment, first at a facility in Boston and then at Glens Falls Hospital. He never lost his hair or got severely sick. In the end, he died of a cardiac issue – with less than two full weeks to go until Christmas.
The community mourned Thompson’s loss with the closure of Skene Manor early for the season. Typically, the manor stays open into some late December weekends. The weekend following Thompson’s death, it stayed closed, following an announcement that it would stay that way until the spring.
The voices who speak about Colin Thompson remember him as kindhearted, through and through. His daughter remembers him as the one who would always have to leave Christmas Eve dinner a bit early – after an evening of bringing joy to his family and loved ones in the privacy of the home, it would be time to give the rest of Whitehall a turn at a community holiday gathering. For local kids, it was a simple fact that Santa Claus lives in Whitehall. To his wife, all of those memories are right in line with what she would wish for.
“I hope people remember him as being kind and generous with his time. Most people who knew him more recently knew him as Santa Claus, and I think that’s how most people will remember him.”