By Pamela Ramey, USAG RedstoneDecember 16, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus -- and he works in the Sparkman Center.
Well, not really. But from far away, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between Charles Smith and Kris Kringle. Both have a long white beard, both have a jolly laugh, both love flying, both love kids, and both have been at their jobs for a long time. Smith has been at his job -- serving this country -- for more than 50 years. He was recognized for his length of service in August.
Smith, an equipment specialist in building 5302, began his military career in 1956, when he enlisted in the Army at 17. He served four and a half tours in Vietnam as well as in Japan, Korea and Germany before he retired from active duty in 1980. Upon retirement, Smith found that he wasn't ready to give up the only life he had ever known. He re-enlisted, this time to work in depot maintenance in St. Louis.
"I felt I could do more there for our young people, our Soldiers. What I did touched everyone," Smith said.
His commitment to helping young people extended beyond his military career. For almost 20 years, he served as the official Santa Claus at Neiman Marcus in St. Louis. The company loved him so much in that role that they gave him his own Neiman Marcus credit card -- with the name "Santa Claus" on it.
"To this day, I have never received a bill for anything I have purchased with this card," Smith said, laughing.
He transferred to Redstone with the 1995 BRAC move. Diabetes and heart surgery have limited much of his activities, including playing Santa Claus. He now occasionally dons the red suit for churches and schools, but mostly for his great-grandchildren. He spends most of his free time collecting coins and stamps, and working on his family's genealogy.
But like Santa, he has no intentions of retiring any time soon. At 72, he said he gets tired easily, but still manages to work a 40-hour week.
"As long as I enjoy the work, I'll be here. I love what I do. I get to help our young men and women have good, safe, flyable machines," Smith said.
"When you see HEMSI (ambulance) out here, you'll know I have retired," he said, laughing. "That will be the only way they get me out of here -- when they cart me out."