Whether the sun was beating down on his snowy white beard in mid-July or the snowflakes would collect on the shoulders of his crimson suit in December, Howard Ogaard was commonly referred to as Santa Claus to those in the Alexandria area.
“He never stopped playing the part,” said his wife, Donna. “No matter where we were or what time of the year it was, Howie was always Santa.”
Because of his natural lengthy beard and hair and his rotund build, Ogaard looked exactly what people of all ages would picture Kris Kringle looking like.
“He even dyed his hair and beard white,” chuckled Donna.
In the summer, even if Howard was dressed in casual attire, he drew bewildered looks from children and even adults, whether he was walking down the street, riding on his motorcycle or just dining in a restaurant.
In other words, Howard embodied the spirit of Santa Claus throughout the year.
But to those wide-eyed children, and even to those appreciative adults, there will be no more finger pointing, bright eyes staring in delight, or even jaws dropping at the realism of Howard’s alter ego.
On May 17, Howard Lawrence Ogaard was killed while riding his three-wheeled motorcycle near his home in Alexandria.
“I had just talked to him on the phone seven minutes before the accident,” said Donna, with tears welling up in her eyes. “We planned on going riding the next day. We said we loved each other before we hung up and …”
She was unable to finish the sentence.
Howard was buried on May 23, the day he and Donna would have celebrated their 22nd wedding anniversary. He was 59 years old.
Howard suffered from diabetes and also had been told by a physician not long before his accident that he had a heart blockage.
“We never had an autopsy performed because he died of a brain injury,” said Donna. “So we don’t know if he had a heart attack, or blacked out because of his diabetes, or just what caused the accident.”
Howard’s cycle left the road within city limits at what authorities determined was between 18-22 miles per hour, well within the speed limit, and struck a tree.
The news spread like a drought-stricken grass fire that Ogaard had been killed. He had been Santa Claus at numerous events, both large and small. His wife dressed the part of Mrs. Claus at some of those events.
Howard worked in North Dakota and Alexandria for Keebler Company for many years. He started working at Prairie Community Services in 2003 and was still employed at the time of his death.
At the Viking Mall in Alexandria, Howard would either be found seated in a large chair having pictures taken of him with exuberant children seated on his lap, or he would roam the halls, inspiring people with a handshake or an inspirational message. The chair he sat in was placed in an area of the mall made to look like his mythical home at the North Pole, complete with a mailbox out front where children could drop letters if he wasn’t available. Parents would have the same wide smiles as their children as they watched Santa calmly answer one question after another.
“If a child wasn’t sure Howie’s beard was real or fake, he would tell them to pull it,” laughed Goracke. “And the kids would pull it, too.”
Howard wanted people to believe he really was Santa Claus. And the more people he made smile, the stronger his desire was to continue.
“He would visit people in nursing homes,” said Donna. “And one woman had her picture taken with him. Her family later told me that when they looked at the photo, it was the happiest they had ever seen her look in years.”
Howard made sure his clothing and accessories fit the part, too. There was no plastic belt or cheap cloth. He wore oversized holiday rings on his pinky fingers, his large black belt was emblazoned with S-A-N-T-A on the front, and he carried a wooden cane that had a small reindeer head attached to the top.
“We would pick up things that we found at places while traveling around the country on our motorcycles,” said Donna, also a member of the Freedom First Riders.
Children would ask Howard/Santa, what his rings were for or one of many other questions. And he would patiently answer each one.
“He would tell them that if he rubbed his ring, the reindeer would know it was feeding time and when he rubbed the ring on the other hand the reindeer knew it was time to come back from the field to pick Santa up,” said Donna. “He had an answer like that for every question the kids had. If a child asked for an overly expensive gift, Howard would suggest they put a more reasonably priced gift on their list and remind them that Christmas is about being with family and being happy.
In a small velvet bag with a drawstring, Howard carried business cards with a simple message that he passed out to as many people as he could. It read: Santa’s Watching You! Be Good, Be Kind, Be Happy, Be Respectful. And his email address was printed on the bottom of the card for anyone interested in sending him a message or hiring him to attend one of their holiday events.
“He was always giving those cards out to people, even children,” said Donna. “And he always had a message for everyone.”
One of the messages Howard instilled in his followers is now found carved on a rock on the front porch of the Ogaard’s home.
“Everyone dies, but not everyone lives. Make some memories. Share some memories. Expect the unexpected,” the inscription reads, as though Howard knew something the rest of us didn’t.
The tree that Howard struck was filled with cards, ribbons, photos, messages and numerous other items after his death by mourners who had adored him.
At Howard’s funeral, the Garfield Fire Department had their request granted that their truck would lead the procession to the cemetery because of the respect they had for him playing Santa Claus at their Christmas parties. Also in the procession were the past four presidents of the Freedom First Riders on their motorcycles.
“To those of us in the Freedom First Riders group, we were like an extended family to Howie,” said Goracke, somberly. “We really enjoyed his humor and his stories. We all miss him very much.”
Howard is survived by his wife Donna, sons Ryan, Jason and Daniel; daughter Leslie; brothers Kevin and Jeff; sisters Lynn, Kim and Alison; seven grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.
To those people’s lives that he touched, the memory of Howard will carry on. And that will amount to a ton of memories.