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Santa Mike hits 50-year mark and looks past pandemic to the future

Charitable benefactor plots out his next half century.

Michael Sturch began his mission of holiday gift-giving 50 years ago and earned the nickname Santa Mike. He hopes grandson Mike (right) will carry on the tradition.
Michael Sturch began his mission of holiday gift-giving 50 years ago and earned the nickname Santa Mike. He hopes grandson Mike (right) will carry on the tradition.
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Santa Claus, we all know, is ageless and immortal.

Santa Mike, on the other hand, turns 75 next month, and he’s starting to make succession plans.

Such is the level of commitment from retired commodities trader Michael Sturch to the children of Marillac St. Vincent Family Services.

It’s been 50 years since Sturch started his holiday tradition of providing gifts to children at the St. Vincent de Paul Center, earning the nickname that now proceeds him.

And if everything goes as planned, “I’m hoping this can last for another 50 years,” Sturch told me recently.

Even as preparations are finalized for this year’s pandemic-adjusted party Dec. 11, Sturch is hitting up his friends for a one-time donation in an effort to endow his Santa Mike Fund well into the future.

Sturch, who has always engaged his family in conducting the events, in recent years has enjoyed watching his 8-year-old grandson, also Mike, don a Santa suit and accompany the real Santa on his duties delivering the gifts.

“We’re grooming him,” said Sturch, who wore the Santa costume himself in the early years when it was just him doing everything (at the last minute) — from buying the presents to renting a truck and delivering them.

Michael Sturch no longer dresses up as Santa Mike, but he still shops for the toys personally.
Michael Sturch no longer dresses up as Santa Mike, but he still shops for the toys personally.
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These days it’s a huge undertaking that in a normal year will provide gifts to more than 450 children who attend the center, which supports low-income working families through preschool and after-school programs.

This, of course, is not a normal year, and enrollment reductions caused by the pandemic have cut the number of kids in half.

On top of that, Santa Mike will be unable to attend his own party this year. He’s considered high risk, and the center is taking extra precautions to protect its children and staff from the virus.

That’s a big disappointment to him, although not nearly as much a disappointment as the need to outright cancel two other events that have become major additions through the years to the Santa Mike holiday repertoire — a huge homeless outreach event and a senior luncheon, both held at the center’s North Side location.

“That broke my heart that day,” said Sturch, who expects both events to resume next year.

Sturch still hopes to conduct a spring version of the homeless outreach, which typically provides meals, outerwear, sleeping bags, backpacks, medical screening and more to 400 homeless men and women.

I’ve attended both the kids’ party and the homeless events and can attest they are quite a production involving hundreds of friendly volunteers and lots of grateful recipients of Sturch’s generosity.

It’s been 10 years since I got acquainted with Sturch and the true-to-life legend of Santa Mike.

Up until then, Sturch had been content to operate below the radar, letting his good deeds speak for themselves. But folks at the center helped him realize he could accomplish even more if he grew his circle of supporters.

Another year, Sturch took me along on his annual holiday shopping trip, and you haven’t lived until you walk into a toy store (he prefers Target) and walk out hours later with 25 shopping carts filled with merchandise for good little girls and boys.

Sturch still participates in the shopping trip.

“I look forward to that day. I’m a little kid at heart. I buy them all the things I want to play with,” he said.

No matter what’s on his list, he always tries to find a couple of red toy sports cars.

The Santa Mike Fund benefits children at Marillac St. Vincent Family Services, shown here at last year’s holiday party.
The Santa Mike Fund benefits children at Marillac St. Vincent Family Services, shown here at last year’s holiday party.
Provided

Michelle Brown, a teacher and supervisor at the center since 1988, said the holiday gifts are always a big hit with the children and their parents but will be especially welcome this year with many families struggling because of the pandemic.

As he looks to the future, Sturch said his daughter, Jennifer Glendenning, has taken over more responsibilities, and his sons, Dan and Ryan, continue to chip in.

But fundraising is still mostly his job.

“I’m able to raise a lot more money than my children are able to raise,” said Sturch, who can call upon a lifetime of business relationships from his days at the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

“People have been so kind and generous, it’s just been unbelievable,” Sturch said. “It’s very humbling to me.”

You can go to santamike.org to learn more.

A lot of great people do a lot of great work this time of year, but I’ve always thought Santa Mike ranks up there with the best of them.