Special education professor Randy Williams qualifies as a great Santa, due to his beard, his heart and many years of Yuletide experience.
In 1972, Professor Randy Williams was a graduate student in the clinical psychology program at Western Michigan University. There, he worked with children who had multiple and often severe handicaps. The program was quite innovative – so much so, that in those days it consisted of five graduate students, 25 undergraduates and no faculty.
“One of the students had gotten this huge grant, and we basically built the program ourselves,” Williams recalled. “We did all sorts of things that were considered highly innovative for the time. We figured out that we could teach non-verbal autistic children how to use sign language first, and then once they were proficient in that, we could teach them how to speak. At the time, nobody had done that before.
“We taught children how to talk and how to walk. And in each case, the parents had been told their child would never walk, never talk, that they should institutionalize the child. We taught two ‘blind’ children how to see. We took them into a closed room and used a penlight, and every time they saw the light, we rewarded them with M&Ms. At first, we thought the responses were random, but pretty soon we could see that they were learning. We were pretty sure at the start, that they weren’t actually blind.”
In the midst of such excitement, late that fall semester, came a request. Someone wanted to put on a Christmas party for the children, and they needed a Santa. Williams was just 23, but he had a full beard. He put on a Santa suit for the time in December 1972.
Williams has played Santa for 40 years now, including 30 years at Gonzaga. He leads the University’s highly respected special education program. This conversation about Santa took place at the end of the first day of fall semester 2011. Students popped into his office asking for help. Williams was exhilarated and clearly extremely busy. No wonder, with a record-setting 17 freshmen taking special education classes.
Santa adventures along the way? There have been many, including the time a tyke peed all over Santa. That was a long afternoon, Williams said, smiling through his beard. He has played Santa for developmentally disabled adults, for preschoolers, for Amerasian students who had never heard of Santa. Most years, Santa visits all over Gonzaga’s campus and L’Arche Spokane, a non-profit that works with the developmentally disabled. Add them all up, and he’s had thousands of conversations with children of all ages. He treasures most the times when children tell him they know he is the real Santa. “They know by the twinkle in my eyes, or by my voice. I don’t do much to disguise my voice – just a big, deep ho-ho-ho when I leave.”
Early in his Yuletide career, Williams’ mom made a Santa suit for him. It lasted for years, but finally was replaced. Even Williams’ son, Tim (’84), who graduated from Gonzaga’s special education program, is on his way to becoming the regular Santa at Sunnycrest Elementary School, where he teaches in Lake Stevens, Wash. Randy’s wife, Betty Fry Williams, whom he met all those years ago, in those exciting days at Western Michigan, also has a wide and deep Christmas streak. How could she not?
The only challenge for Williams? The two crunch times that collide each year: Christmas and final exams. “I always try to schedule my appearances as Santa on the same day, so I have less time in suiting up. Of course it doesn’t take as long as it used to. I used to use blue pencil to put my wrinkles. I don’t have to do that anymore,” he says. Once again, his beard doesn’t quite hide his trademark grin.
Below, future Zags treasured the chance to tell Gonzaga’s own Santa Claus their heart’s desire at this year’s alumni Christmas party.