Rehoboth-area volunteer — and Santa surrogate — Dennis Diehl is eager to show others that acts of kindness beget more of the same
Dennis Diehl considers himself “the luckiest person in the world.” Even when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer this summer, that feeling didn’t change.
“When they told me that I had cancer, I knew right away that it was a temporary thing, that I would get better,” he says. “I haven’t ever considered the alternative.”
That confidence is rooted partly in his Christian faith: “My first thought after my diagnosis was ‘He’s not done with me yet.’”
But it also comes from Diehl’s belief that he has a purpose in life and that, after more than 30 years focused on earning a living, he is finally doing meaningful work. “I knew that it wasn’t time for me to leave this Earth,” he says.
Diehl, who lives near Rehoboth Beach, is founder and organizer of the annual Boardwalk Buddy Walk, an event that encourages the community to include and welcome people with Down syndrome. He also is a member of the Dewey Beach Lions Club, where he facilitates a program through which children with intellectual disabilities are taught their way around the kitchen.
And — perhaps most gratifying of all, especially during the holiday season — for 11 years he has played Santa Claus, appearing in the Rehoboth Beach Christmas parade and at the Dewey Beach Lions Club’s breakfast with Santa, and even greeting children at Santa’s house on the Rehoboth boardwalk.
This year, despite his illness and the treatment he is undergoing, Diehl will once again don his red suit — not a rental; he has his own — and attend events to greet children.
He has decided, though, that he will not be able to take on his regular stint in Santa’s house, which is a huge disappointment: “It really breaks my heart to miss out on that. So many kids come back year after year, and then bring their younger brothers and sisters. I really hope that I can get back to that next year.”
Diehl grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Calvert Hall, a Catholic high school for boys in Towson, Md. After graduation, he joined the Army Reserve, where he served for six years, and studied accounting at night school.
Though he started an accounting career in Baltimore, Diehl “wanted a reason to come to the beach.” He found one by opening a gift shop just off Rehoboth Avenue, the Mizzen Mast, which he operated for three decades. In 2001, he and wife Sharonlee expanded their business by opening Just Birkenstock, a shoe store that ultimately became Just Comfort Shoes and now has two locations.
In 2004, Diehl joined the Lions Club. After so many years focused on running a business, “I realized that I wanted to do good for the community at large and for individual people,” he recalls.
He and Sharonlee started the Buddy Walk two years later in honor of Sharon’s brother, David Samson, who has Down syndrome. Earlier that year, David had visited the couple and “I took him all around town,” Diehl says. “It was a very different feeling for me, having people stare at us. But David smiled through it all. People would stare at him and he would give them a big smile. That’s the way that you turn people around.”
Samson, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., has attended every Buddy Walk, held the first weekend of October. Because of health problems, he is no longer able to participate in the 1-mile stroll on the boardwalk. But he is able to attend the Buddy-Up Party, held the night before the walk at the Dewey Beach Lions Club Community Center.
“The Buddy Walk is all about acceptance and inclusion,” Diehl notes. “Rehoboth Beach was already a welcoming place, and I wanted to build on that to make it even more of a welcoming place for people with Down syndrome.”
A family tradition
Diehl’s first year as Santa Claus was 2007. “I had a beer belly, and I had a white beard, so the Chamber of Commerce asked me to be Santa at its annual benefit dinner,” he says.
That beard, however, was well-trimmed, so he had to wear fake whiskers the first year.
“Kids get on your lap, they pull your beard, and it’s pretty uncomfortable,” he admits. “I struggled through it. Then, around July or August the next year, I decided that I wanted to do it again. It had been a fun experience. But I said, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it with my own beard.”
Now, Diehl’s whiskers are a year-round thing. In the fall, before Thanksgiving weekend, he has them as well as his eyebrows bleached to make them even whiter. When they see that transformation, Diehl’s grandchildren — eight of them — know that the Christmas season has arrived.
Playing Santa is a family tradition. When Diehl was 9 years old, he spotted his dad, Dyer, putting something (what could it have been?) underneath the family Christmas tree. When confronted, the elder Diehl told his son that Santa Claus’s spirit is so strong that it inspires people everywhere to give gifts at Christmastime, turning them into Santa surrogates.
“He said that that was what was happening all over the world. And that if I always believed, someday I could be Santa too.”
Five years ago, Diehl’s sister gave him a photograph that was taken in 1947 of Dyer, dressed in white fur and red velvet and carrying a sack that may very well have toys in it. “I had never seen the photo before,” Diehl says. “But it brought that story back to me. And it confirmed that what my dad said was true, that I come from a long line of Santa Clauses.”
Now, when his grandchildren see him in a parade or at an event, and they recognize him as Grampy, he tells them the same story that his father told him. “I tell them that Santa’s spirit is in me, and that it’s probably in them too.”
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