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RYAN TAYLOR COLUMN: Our own Santa

TOWNER, N.D. - Christmas is the giving season and, with all that giving, lots of folks get hung up on the idea of receiving. Growing up, I had my own personal Santa Claus to learn the lessons of giving. My family called him "Uncle Tony," a term o...

TOWNER, N.D. - Christmas is the giving season and, with all that giving, lots of folks get hung up on the idea of receiving.

Growing up, I had my own personal Santa Claus to learn the lessons of giving. My family called him "Uncle Tony," a term of fondness since there was no blood relationship.

He was my first cousin's first father-in-law and he lived in a town called Downer's Grove, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

Uncle Tony liked our little North Dakota ranching community and he developed a great friendship with my parents when he came here to visit his daughter before I was born. I never had met him, but every Christmas since I was old enough to start remembering, there would be a box of presents on our doorstep from Uncle Tony.

My siblings and I would get toys and games, and Mom and Dad would get a check with instructions to "go out for dinner," his treat. A Christmas box from Tony came as surely as the holiday itself, year after year.

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I learned how to write letters to thank him for the gifts. I'd mail those letters off to his Chicago suburb, a place that seemed as foreign and distant to me as Santa's North Pole. He became a loyal pen pal for our whole family.

Later, the boxes of toys gave way to checks written to Mom and Dad to buy us something we wanted for Christmas. I remember getting a pair of hockey skates that way, knowing I had Uncle Tony to thank even though they were purchased locally.

A real person

For me, Uncle Tony's existence was a bit surreal. My only contact was by written letter. He would send photos in his letters from time to time, usually from his flower garden that he grew with pride.

Finally, as a young man, I found myself in Chicago on business and decided I would extend my trip an extra half a day. I called Uncle Tony, told him I was in the area, and got on the train in downtown Chicago headed toward Downers Grove.

The depot was just a block from his address. It was a nice, quiet neighborhood and I knocked on the door of Tony's modest little house. A modest little man in his 90s came to the door with the help of a cane. We visited like old friends for a good couple of hours until it was time for me to catch the train back into the city.

We walked together back to the depot, and he waved goodbye as I stepped aboard.

Tony was not a wealthy man. He spent his life working in a steel smelter for a working man's wage. He was a widower who lived rather humbly, but his generosity was legendary to at least one ranching family nearly a thousand miles away.

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The letters continued to come after our visit until the last couple of years. I know he was getting more frail, but no one told us if he had passed away. My Internet search says he did.

Our relationship was built on letters and Christmas cards, but I'd have to say Tony was one of the finest men I've known.

For me, he was a Christmas miracle with a message of unselfish generosity. Because of him, I try harder to find ways to celebrate the season of giving.

We can all find ways to celebrate - we can pitch dollars into the kettle of the Salvation Army bell ringer each time we pass, we can lighten up the face of children with random acts of generosity, we can simply write a letter to an old friend or acquaintance.

Giving is learned. I hope I can teach it half as well as Tony did.

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