Thanks, Jim, for 33 years of calls to the kids from Santa on Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve of 1986, Jim and I were working the dreaded holiday night shift at the Chicago Sun-Times. I yearned to be home with my three children. Jim had an idea.

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Jim_Quinlan_and_Connie_Quinlan.jpg

Jim and Connie Quinlan

One of the most wonderful people in my children’s lives died two weeks ago. They never met him.

Jim Quinlan and I once worked at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was a veteran newspaperman; I was just starting. When we met, his children were grown and mine were still very young. I valued his life advice — especially on being a parent.

Kids won’t eat dinner? Try backwards day, he said. Ice cream first and grilled cheese sandwiches for dessert.

Children won’t go to bed? Wrap them in a blanket and look up at the stars.

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On Christmas Eve of 1986, Jim and I were working the dreaded holiday night shift. I yearned to be home with my three children, then 6, 3 and 11 months. I wanted to create memories.

Jim had an idea. He’d call the kids and play Santa Claus over the phone. He didn’t know them, but he was sure he could pull it off.

“Ho, ho, ho,” he laughed when my wife picked up the phone. “This is Santa. I’m calling the kids before I take off in my sleigh.” In the background, I jingled my keys like sleigh bells.

It worked.

Jim convinced the kids that Santa was on the line. He did that for the next 33 years.

Jim moved to Florida a few years later to work as a newspaper columnist. But he never forgot us.

The years flew by, and I always tracked him down a few days before Christmas. We would talk about his life, his four children, his grandchildren and later his great-grandson. Then we would get down to business. I’d tell him about each of our soon-to-be four children, so he knew exactly what to say on Christmas Eve

I coached him a bit, but Jim was somehow able to take my brief reports and spin them into tiny memorable chats that made each of the kids feel extraordinary.

The early conversations were mostly about toys. Santa would hint at gifts — Legos or an American Girl doll — and the children were astonished when those exact presents showed up the next morning. As they grew older, their calls with Santa were more about their lives. About school and their careers and their new families, who shared their calls. Jim even called them when they celebrated Christmas Eve with their in-laws.

And even later, as Jim grew more fragile, the children asked him more questions than he asked them.

”How are you doing, Santa?” they asked.

James Quinlan’s obituary in a Florida newspaper described himas a reporter, screenwriter, author and small plane pilot. There was no mention of his side job on Christmas Eve. He was 85.

Over a long writing career, he worked for newspapers in four states. One story he wrote, about his years at the National Enquirer, became the basis of the 1996 John Travolta movie “Michael.” Travolta played the archangel Michael, sent down from above to help people on Earth.

We took the kids to the movie. They loved it, but it didn’t interest them that the screenwriter was someone they talked with each year. Santa was Santa.

My kids never did meet Jim, but over the years he followed their paths. Jim sent Hollywood screenplays for inspiration to one of our sons when he was a college film student.

And he never stopped offering parenting wisdom. Surprise them, he reminded me.

One Christmas Eve, our granddaughter had the bright idea to check the caller ID on our home phone after Santa called. But my wife and I outsmarted her. The ID said “Santa Claus.” We’ve never changed it.

About a year ago, I flew to Florida to visit Jim and his wife, Connie, who had been in on the conspiracy since the late ’80s. I brought him a photo book showing each of the children and a note they had written or drawing they had made. Their house in Bradenton Beach was a museum to me.

“So this is where it happens,” I asked as I looked around. “This is the phone you use? This is the chair you sit in?”

Jim and Connie grinned. Then Connie showed me little cards that Jim had used over the years to jot notes during the annual pre-call. It was our family history.

I called Santa last week to see how he and Mrs. Claus were doing in this most difficult time. Connie told me that Jim had died a few days earlier. I was shocked and sad for his family and for mine.

That evening, I contacted Kyran Quinlan, one of Jim’s sons. He’s a pediatrician, appropriately, in Chicago.

“We’ve heard a lot about you and your family,” Kyran told me. “You’ve brought a lot of pleasure to my father.”

His words, of course, stunned me. It was Jim who brought all of the pleasure.

Richard Cahan is a Chicago author and book publisher. His publishing site is CityFilesPress.com.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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