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Yes, Manteca, there is a Santa as spirit of Ben Jetton lives on

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POSTED January 3, 2018 1:11 a.m.

They say Santa Claus lives only in your imagination.
Somewhere between the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, they say, sits old St. Nick – with his jolly gait and his rosy cheeks and his velvety suit spreading cheer all over the world for little girls and boys who ended up on the right side of his list.
But Lionel “Ben” Jetton – who passed away on Dec. 29 after a yearlong battle with cancer – proved that Santa Claus, was in fact, very real.
For those that didn’t know Him, Jetton was the man that spent his days in December inside of the Santa hut on the corner of Yosemite Avenue and Main Street, taking pictures with families who came down to see him. He offered a picture for purchase that families could go home with, but never turned anybody away those that wanted to take pictures with their own camera.
In the day and age when places like Bass Pro Shops offers real-time line updates for their Santa Claus, and the mall offers a camera to let people know how many people are in line, Jetton represented the true, down home, old school experience that parents wanted their children to have.
There was no upselling with Jetton or his daughter Monique – who took the photos and printed them right there in the hut. There were no options for refrigerator magnets, desk calendars, t-shirts or trinkets. It was just a service to the community, paid for by the Downtown Merchants Association, that for years offered a friendly, local option for people who wanted to partake in a small but significant tradition with their loved ones.
I found out about two weeks ago that Jetton was sick and likely wasn’t going to recover. The news cast a pall over an otherwise cheery holiday season – not because I knew him particularly well, but because I know how much he meant to the people who did know him well, and how much he cared about what he did for the people who came to see him, even if it was only for a small window of time.
A few years ago, Jetton called me up and wanted to tell me about an effort that was underway to rehab the old, rickety trailer that had been his December home for a number of years. Apparently the 11-months of sitting, year-after-year, had worn out everything from the shingles to the flooring, and he wondered whether the kids who stepped up to see him would one day fall through the rotted wood and splash down into the puddle that formed beneath the trailer in the Bedquarters parking lot.
And with the help of a local family that had come to love the embodiment of the holiday spirit that Jetton brought to Downtown Manteca, they collected the money and materials necessary to ensure that Jetton would have a place to greet smiling – and crying – youngsters for years to come.
Unfortunately, his time in the makeshift North Pole was far more limited than anybody had realized.
In this modern age, as much as I hate to admit it, Facebook has become a pretty good barometer of the consensus at large when it comes to most things, especially when you look at how an issue affects a regional area.
When Jennifer Munoz, who was instrumental in helping get the hut rehab going, shared to a local Manteca Facebook page about Jetton’s condition, the well-wishes and shares began pouring in.
“I’m honored to have been able to bring my son to have pictures with him,” wrote Katie Fillippini.
“This is the Santa that made Manteca feel alive at holiday time,” wrote Stephanie Brown.
That particular post had more than 500 reactions including a slew of pictures that people posted with the bearded man that had touched all of their hearts over the years with his charm, his grace, and an unyielding dedication to a holiday that meant so much to him.
Just how much did he care about making sure that the spirit of Christmas was enjoyed by all?
One of the major reasons for the overhaul of the hut was so that children with mobility issues would be able to get their picture taken with Santa, and he came with the idea of hanging a separate backdrop outside of the hut itself so that he could sneak up behind crying kids that wouldn’t go the lap route so that mom and dad could get a photo with Santa and the child would never even know that he was there.
He even went so far as to make sure that a special side door was included in the schematics for the new trailer so it would be easier for him to pull off his “stealth” maneuver – much to the delight of many parents who would otherwise have to settle for the crying baby photo.
I never had the chance to take my own children to go down and see him. Circumstances and such. But I always told myself that there would be another year when I’d get the chance to pack everybody up and drive in town so that they too could experience the magic that I got to see for so many years when writing stories about him for the paper.
It’ll always be one of the things that I’ll regret.
For a man that made his career at places like Libbey-Owens-Ford, Escalon Unified School District and the Army-Air Force Exchange, Jetton found his true calling late in life when it came to playing a role that we’re all supposed to believe exists only in our imaginations.
Ben Jetton made Santa Claus real not just for the children that got to know him, but the adults who all too often are consumed by the materialism and stress of the holidays. While he’ll live forever in the scrapbooks of countless families who made his temporary home an annual tradition for their households, he’s leaving behind a massive suit to fill for whoever steps up to keep the legacy alive.
Maybe it’s Christmas in heaven year-round and he’s handing out a candy cane right now to a well-behaved child.
Because thinking about it any other way just seems like a disservice to somebody who went above and beyond to keep the Christmas magic alive and well for so many people.
Rest in peace Santa.

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.

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