In this season of giving, the village of Gomer today is recognizing one of their own — a man so willing to give that he has become legend. His name was Bob Shelmadine, but most people knew him as Santa.
Until his death in 1998, Shelmadine donned the red suit every year and made certain that every child knew the love of Santa by offering them something small as he wished them the merriest of holidays. After his death, the small home he owned across from the village church was turned into the Gomer Welsh Community Museum. But before Welsh memorabilia could go in, the floor-to-ceiling boxes of toys had to be cleared out.
“We’ve had the museum going for about 12 years, but we’ve never honored the man who meant so much to so many people. He always brought such pleasure to so many in this season of love and joy, recognizing that so many didn’t have that. His acts of kindness and his willingness to give are something we like to remember,” said Linda Whittington, one of the promoters of today’s “Bob Shelmadine’s Christmas.”
Shelmadine began playing Santa in 1929. He often told that it was one of those early years in his stint that opened his eyes to the real meaning of giving.
He had gotten lost on his way to a home requesting a visit. He stopped in front of a ramshackle house to ask directions, but when the parents saw him, they asked him to visit their children. They warned Shelmadine that they had no gifts to give that year.
“I’d always thought every child had a Christmas until then,” he told The Lima News in a 1976 Christmas Eve story. From that day forward, every child visited by Shelmadine did get a Christmas present. In fact, it was from that day forward that the Gomer Christmas Project began.
Shelmadine would collect toys throughout the year, repair them, and offer them as presents when Santa would visit a home. He also collected oranges and grapefruit and candy to hand out.
“I went to Gomer School for 12 years, and I remember every year just before our Christmas vacation, Bobby Shelmadine would come and give out brown paper bags. They always had in them an orange, a candy cane, and some type of small chocolate,” Whittington said.
But it wasn’t just the Gomer area that benefitted from this Santa. He was the first Santa to visit children at Marimor. He also made visits around Lima schools, nursing homes and the county jail. Shelmadine was determined to bring the giving spirit to as many people every year as he could manage.
As he got older and driving became an issue, he always found a friend in Gomer to serve as his Rudolph and guide him to his next stop. “I think he was Santa until he died,” Whittington speculated. If so, Shelmadine was 91 years old on his last visits.
“You know, this year we really began thinking back on all the good things that Gomer has had over the years. The Gomer School is officially closed, and some of us began reminiscing about the good old days, and thought Bobby Shelmadine played such a large part in our lives,” Whittington said.
Never married, Shelmadine worked for years at WIMA radio. But it was his work at Christmas that meant the world to him.
“It’s so rewarding,” he told The Lima News in that 1976 story. “I can’t explain the feeling, but if more people would give of their time and selves, they’d have a merrier Christmas. You never start living until you help others.”
In his honor, the Welsh Society members will give everyone visiting his house today a small brown bag filled with an orange and a small candy. Likewise, members have gathered as many toys as they can find that Shelmadine gave to them to fill the house. His last Santa suit will also be hanging there.
The open house is from 1 to 5 p.m. today at 7365 Gomer Road in Gomer. Parking is available in the church parking lot across the street.