Santa who served with 75th Rangers comforts terminally ill boy who dies in his arms

by Geoff Herbert
Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

A terminally ill boy died in Santa Claus' arms after having his Christmas wish granted.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reports Eric Schmitt-Matzen, 60, dresses up as Santa Claus for about 80 events a year, using his snow white beard and real-life girth to play the holiday icon in Tennessee. As a result, he looks like Kris Kringle even without his Santa suit, which came in handy when a Nashville nurse called to say a 5-year-old boy was minutes from death and wanted to meet Santa.

Schmitt-Matzen only had time to put on his Santa suspenders before rushing over with a present the nurse had ready.

According to the New York Post, the boy perked up enough to unwrap the "PAW Patrol" toy, but the real gift was getting to meet Santa.

"They say I'm gonna die," the boy said, Schmitt-Matzen recalled. "How can I tell when I get to where I'm going?"

"When you get there, you tell 'em you're Santa's number one elf, and I know they'll let you in," Schmitt-Matzen replied.

According to the News Sentinel, the boy then gave Santa a hug and died in his arms.

"I cried all the way home," Schmitt-Matzen told the newspaper. "I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive."

He said he was so broken up, he couldn't join his wife to visit their grandchildren the next day. Schmitt-Matzen, a military veteran and mechanical engineer who co-owns Packing Seals & Engineering in Jacksboro, Tenn., thought he might never be able to play Santa again.

"I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I've seen my share of (stuff). But I ran by the nurses' station bawling my head off. I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don't know how they can take it," he said.

But Schmitt-Matzen couldn't give up the role he was born to play. The Miami Herald reports Schmitt-Matzen was born on Dec. 6, Saint Nicholas Day, regularly bleaches his beard to look white, has gone through formal Santa training and even has a "Jingle Bells" ringtone on his phone.

Dressing up as Santa one more time weeks later made him realize he'll never be able to hang up his suspenders.

"When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold. It made me realize the role I have to play," Schmitt-Matzen told the News Sentinel. "For them and for me."

©2016 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.
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