There's a home video from my childhood filmed sometimes in 1988 or 1989. The whole family—my parents, myself and my two brothers, my aunt Alissa, my grandparents, my other aunt and uncle and their son, my cousin—are all downstairs at our house celebrating Christmas. In the video, you can just hear the doorbell ringing upstairs before my dad walks up the spiral staircase, answers the door with a high level of excitement, and comes back down the stairs with a very special Christmas guest.
Santa walks down the stairs as the family coalesces around him, greeting every member of the family by name with warmth and kindness. He is just as advertised in the famous poem: soft red coat and long white beard, big bag of presents and flowing mane of silver hair, tall black boots and twinkling eyes—kindly with a hint of mischief. He takes his time asking us questions—have you been a good boy this year? Did you listen to your parents? Did you clean up your room when you were told? Yes! we answered with varying levels of honesty. Yes!
The video, filmed on one of those shoulder-mounted VHS recorders that captured moments like this way back when, shows the excitement on each face, adult and child alike, as Santa makes his rounds, distributing kindness and words of advice and gifts for all. As the children rush off to compare gifts and Santa shares a brief smile with my parents, he cinches up his now diminished bag of goodies and prepares to ascend the stairs, presumably to pilot his reindeer-drawn sleigh back to the North Pole. But before he can quite make it out of the house, my aunt Alissa, rocking back and forth on the couch, says "Goodbye Santa! And tell Mrs. Coble we said hi." The kids missed it, but that small aside tells the whole story. This Santa wasn't a jolly old elf, a Greek saint, a Coca-Cola mascot. This was Leonard Coble. He was many things, but primarily, to us, he was our next-door neighbor, and having Leonard and his wife Murial Coble as neighbors during my formative years spoiled me forever. When Santa Claus lives next door, who can compete? Leonard had been an engineer with Western Union and was one of those men who can seemingly fix anything. I remember when he built a big barn-shaped storage building at the bottom of his hill. He put up a sign and printed business cards which he proudly handed out to the neighborhood kids:
PA'S PIDDLIN' PARLOR
In his parlor, Pa would piddle, which is to say he would mess around with a thing until that thing worked either as good as or better than before it broke. His expertise extended in dazzling breadth: when I needed someone to help me make an invention for my 6th-grade science class, Leonard and I sat down and discussed—what problems in the world needed fixing? We talked about the big ones, and together decided we didn't know how to fix those. What small inconveniences close to home might we tackle? Newspapers. You read them, you want to recycle them, but they seem to spread if not immediately put away. Leonard sketched out a platform with four vertical arms, each of which had a channel and a loop at the top. Twine, run through the loops and channels, would sit underneath papers as they were neatly stacked, then tied and bound for ease of transport. He had the lumber and the saws and the stories to tell as we worked, and within a short while he had our invention in his hands.
Looking back, it isn't the invention or his ingenuity that I'll miss. Its that when his 11-year-old neighbor walked over to his house and said "I need to make an invention," there was no question that this was too much to ask, no hint that he might have had plans of his own that night, no notion that this wasn't exactly what he had been hoping would happen. That was L.D. Coble. He helped. I knocked on Leonard and Muriel's door countless times growing up, and every time I was greeted with warmth and with kindness and with welcome. You need a stick of butter? Here's two. You need a cup of milk? Take the gallon. In his actions and in his life were lived out the three things that I now know he was: a Good. Christian. Man. Leonard Coble passed away on May the 4th, 2021 at the age of 95. He is survived by his wife of 78 years, Murial, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who loved him and will cherish his memory. And a neighbor who still thinks Leonard Coble was the real Santa Claus.