Air date: December 22, 2011
Bill Doebler was 19 when he was sent to Vietnam. He saw a lot. And it changed him. Bill: When we came home we weren’t, you know, we weren’t received very well. I mean I have been slapped and kicked, uh, so I kind of just went into a shell. Years later, the most unlikely thing would pull him out. Playing Santa Claus. It started when he rang the bell for the Salvation Army. Bill: I already had the hair. So I started growing a beard and at the end of my ring, I started wearing a Santa hat. Kids were coming up and hugging me, oh Santa, Santa. Next thing you know, Bill was attending Santa school — not in the north pole but in Midland, Michigan. Bill: Santa Claus is a 24/7/365. It’s not just when you put that suit on. Your behavior always has to portray Santa Claus. Playing the jolly St. Nick has helped Doebler cope with the loss of a job, the loss of a home, and extreme health issues from Agent Orange. Bill: Diabetes, I have no feeling in my hands and feet, my eyes are very, very, I have mobility problems. My wife says I weeble wobble. Still, when he puts poor children on his knee, Bill’s own worries go away. Bill: A little boy, I asked what he wanted and he said “toys, whatever you can bring me.” I didn’t want to let the kids see the tears coming down my face. Luckily my gloves absorbed that. It is hard for me to imagine children not getting anything at Christmas. They say Santa is for children, but in this case, the boots and hat have changed the life of a Vietnam vet forever. Mitch Albom: You’re not going to buy a reindeer anytime soon are you? Bill: I don’t think they would let me but I would if I could. Honoring the red suit, Bill Doebler brings a new Santa spirit to the heart of Detroit.