Joe Graham has played the Moorestown Knights of Columbus’ Santa Claus for eleven years.
Fifteen years ago, Joe Graham was driving along the White Horse Pike in Audubon when he spotted a theatrical supply store.
“Just on a impulse I stopped,” Graham said. “I walked inside and saw the Santa suit and said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
For the last 11 years, Graham, a Mt. Laurel resident, has brought his take on Santa Claus to the Moorestown Knights of Columbus’ “Annual Lunch with Santa,” which immediately follows the the Moorestown Lions Club’s Annual Holiday Parade. Graham said the role has brought him immense joy as he’s watched the children of Moorestown grow over the years.
He said it all started more than a decade ago when the Moorestown Knights of Columbus Council №1082 decided they wanted to host a luncheon at Our Lady of Good Counsel following the parade. Graham said someone suggested Santa make an appearance at the luncheon, and they asked if anyone had a Santa suit. Graham’s was the only hand that went up.
Since then, Graham, who is 87 years old, has returned to the role for one simple reason.
“It’s fun,” Graham said with a wide smile.
Graham said getting to bring kids joy when they see Santa is a special experience. He said at last year’s luncheon, a mother who has been bringing her children to the luncheon for the past eight years informed him that he was the only Santa her kids have ever met throughout the years. He said hearing feedback like that makes the experience especially rewarding.
For nearly as long as he has played Santa for the Knights, Graham has also played Santa for Abilities Solutions in Westville. Abilities provides individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities with work opportunities.
Each year, Graham attends Abilities’ Christmas party in his Santa suit and sits and chats with those in attendance about what they want for Christmas. He said the enthusiastic greeting he receives when he returns each year is always a positive experience.
“I always leave feeling good,” Graham said. “I can’t walk. I can’t do this. I can’t do that, but they say, ‘Hi, Mister Joe!” I’m greeted like Santa. It’s a joy. It really is.”
For Graham, playing Santa is all about listening. He said he takes the time to let children explain to him what the toy they want is, and he tries to manage expectations. He said sometimes he’ll tell children he’s got plenty of the toy they want in the shop if he feels there’s a reasonable chance of the child getting it, but if not, he says he’ll see what he can do.
“I say, ‘I’m taking care of people over the world, but I’ll do my best,’” Graham said.
For Graham, taking care of people has been something of a theme in his life, having worked for 36 years in human resources at an oil refinery in West Deptford. He moved to Mt. Laurel when he met his second wife, Mary, and joined the Knights of Columbus shortly thereafter.
Each year, the Knights of Columbus’ luncheon seems to get bigger, with more children in attendance, Graham said. Greg Klint, a member of the Knights of Columbus, said nearly 100 children were in attendance at the luncheon on Saturday, Dec. 2, and the children are always thrilled when Santa arrives.
“He’s a real trooper,” Klint said. “He doesn’t have to to do this, but he likes doing it.”
Despite recent health issues and not being able to get around as well anymore, Graham said he doesn’t anticipate giving up playing Santa anytime soon. He said when the Knights asked him if he wanted to play Santa next year, he had a clear answer.
“I said, ‘If you put anybody else on this, I will sue,’” Klint said with a good-natured laugh.