By Maddy Vitale
One might say Rocky Santarcangelo has worn many hats in his lifetime.
The 81-year-old Sea Isle City married father of two has been a life insurance agent, Garden State Parkway toll collector and beach badge checker.
While he enjoys it all, one of his favorite hats, literally, is one made of crushed red velvet that he dons every year, as he waves from a float, then listens to children tell him exactly what he is supposed to give them under the tree.
It is fitting that a jovial, friendly man, whose last name begins with Santa, should wear a Santa Claus suit proudly and spread good cheer.
Santarcangelo joked that after 10 years playing Santa for Sea Isle, it was just brought to his attention at an AARP luncheon Thursday that he is the obvious person to play jolly old St. Nick.
“We were all joking around at the luncheon and one of the fellows said to me, ‘You can’t help but be Santa. Santa is in your name.’ I thought about it a bit, laughed and said, ‘You are right.’”
What Santarcangelo said he loves most about being Santa in the Sea Isle Christmas Parade and for other holiday events for the city, is the look on a child’s face when he or she meets him.
“Little people are the greatest. They are so happy. In the last few years, I’ve been getting letters. The kids print them or write them up and they give them to me,” he explained. “I’m trying to find a way to see the parents or talk to them about some of the wish lists.”
Sometimes the parents prepare their child for a visit with Santa.
“Now, parents will come and give the kids a hint, ‘Just tell Santa about one thing.’ When they say that, I think they are hoping they already got their child that one thing,” Santarcangelo said with a chuckle.
In addition to playing Santa, Santarcangelo has been busy as a loving father to two grown children. He is a grandfather to three and a great-grandfather to an 18-month-old boy.
He is also a devoted husband to his wife, Monica, of 61 years.
But don’t expect Monica to play Mrs. Claus.
“I’ve asked her,” Rocky Santarcangelo said.
Monica said with a laugh, “I think he should enjoy it all by myself, and I will be in the background and watch and just smile.”
But she does like the attention her husband receives as the big man.
“I like the whole thing. He is ushered into Excursion Park. He lights the tree and talks to the children,” she noted. “It is just good to watch.”
The Santarcangelos have lived in Sea Isle full time since 2000 on property they bought in 1972.
Rocky Santarcangelo has donated his time to charities and organizations, including food banks, and has been active with the local Knights of Columbus. His wife is also busy. She is a Sea Isle AARP Chapter 710 board member.
How Rocky began his role as Santa is partly due to his work with the Knights of Columbus, and also because of his friendly relationship with Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio.
“I think I borrowed the suit from the city and when it came time for the city to need it back, the mayor asked if I could return it. He said, ‘Where’s the suit?’ I said, ‘It’s my suit now.”’
So, Desiderio enlisted Santarcangelo’s service as Santa, and he has spent a decade pleasing hundreds, if not thousands, of children ever since.
Some things have changed over time.
“Before, I used to get out of a fire engine,” he said of his Sea Isle Christmas Parade duty. “But when you try to jump out of them, they are higher up than they look. The last couple of years we used the floats. I think they work out pretty well.”
Throughout his lifetime, he said he has seen a lot of good in people.
Santarcangelo said he stopped working for an insurance company after 28 years, when it became more about money, than people. He was just 57.
When he took a job as a Garden State Parkway toll taker in 2002, he was a senior. He did it for two years and loved the interaction with motorists.
“It was just fantastic. The public … all they want is a little bit of cheer or just a smile,” he said.
That approach to life seems to meld perfectly with his role as Santa.
“I love the public,” he said. “I have a lot of fun with people. I love being Santa because I think the best feeling is when you see a child who believes.”