It was at Fremont, Va., in the midst of a large crowd surrounding the rear of the train.
The woman was Linda Phipps of nearby Nora. She explained she has five grandchildren and is “trying to teach and show them to share.”
It’s what the train is all about, Phipps said, at least to her.
Phipps wasn’t alone on Saturday as the Santa Train made its 74th annual, 14-stop trek from Shelby, Ky., to downtown Kingsport.
Oh, there were some attendees along the 110-mile route who showed behavior that might well have made them seem destined for the “bad” side of Santa’s list.
But their actions were overshadowed by the spirit of sharing demonstrated by many others.
Yes. That tall guy over there just “intercepted” a plush toy that Santa seemed to be intending for other, perhaps younger and smaller hands. But time after time, this or that tall guy immediately passed the toy on to a child, often Santa’s apparent target.
“I saw that a lot today,” Santa told the Times-News as the train neared Kingsport just before 3 p.m., more than nine hours after it left Shelby, Ky. “It’s good to see. And we need a lot more of that. We’ve had a wonderful day. We started earlier in the day this year, meaning stop times at some locations were quite a bit earlier. And it was raining at some early stops. But the children came out to see the Santa Train. We appreciate that and the smiles of those children, even at 5:30 a.m. on a cold day before daylight. ... Well, that inspires us to do the best we can do.”
Santa also praised the help he received from special guest Darryl Worley, Worley’s wife Kimberly and 8-year-old daughter Savannah for serving among his many helpers — especially Savannah.
“She was an excellent elf,” Santa said.
Worley said he eagerly accepted the invitation to be Santa’s special guest this year. It was his first time on the train. After the invitation, he researched the Santa Train for a couple of days and quickly realized he not only wanted to ride, but he wanted his wife and daughter to experience it as well, knowing they would be blessed by it.
“I knew what it was going to be and what they would get out of it,” Worley said.
Worley said after his first stint on the back of the train with Santa, he was asked almost immediately by someone to comment on what the experience was like, and he couldn’t answer because it was such an emotional experience at that point.
Hours later, talking to the Times-News, Worley ultimately choked up and tears rolled from his eyes.
“When something like that happens, it’s powerful strong,” Worley said. “Where that stop was, you could see in their eyes. ... I told him those little stuffed animals might be the only thing they get for Christmas. I grew up around that. We had good Christmases. So my mom and dad reached out to a lot of other children and gave the gifts. Those other kids maybe otherwise might have had an orange and an apple and a few nuts. There we were opening 20 gifts. So my parents said, ‘How about we cut back a little on the gifts you get and we give some to these other kids?’ And that’s what we did. Good Christmases. I just want my little one to have that, and that’s why she’s here today.”
When Worley first went out to toss toys from the back of the train, early in the run, reporters watching on a television monitor inside the train noted his reaction to the crowd. It looked like pure delight.
Asked later about having that reaction, the smile and joy in his eye as he tossed toys to children, Worley replied, “How could you not be?”
“I could see where someone could do this every year for 74 years and never get tired of it,” Worley said. “It’s one of those things, and there’s not a lot of these. ... But the energy is going both ways. It’s equal. You’d think that because you’re throwing the stuff out to them, that’s the direction most of the energy would be flowing. But sometimes I feel like there might be more coming back this way. And it is, if you’re here for the right reasons. And everybody is. And that’s been one of the most beautiful things about this experience for us, and Kimberly just said it to me, she whispered it to me: ‘Every person on this train is totally vested in it and proud of it. You can just feel it. That’s what it’s all about. There are just no bad apples. It’s a spririt. And it’s a good one.”
CSX President Clarence Gooden and his wife Corkie were among those serving on the Santa Train this year.
Gooden, who started as a regular laborer with CSX in his hometown of Waycross, Ga., 46 years ago, became the company’s president in 2014. He had not ridden the Santa Train in several years, but Saturday was his fifth time on the train.
What does he enjoy most about it?
“I enjoy seeing little kids smile,” Gooden said. “It gets you in the spirit of Christmas and what it is: a time for peace on Earth.”
His wife rode for the first time last year and stood out among the ground crew for her elf attire. She was back this year and just as enthusiastic — and popular with the crowds.
Gooden said after Corkie’s 2015 participation with the Santa Train, someone posted a photo on CSX’s Facebook page showing “the Elf” with a little girl. The poster captioned the photo “Thank you, Elf, you made my Christmas.”
“I took that picture and had it printed with it made to look like a painting by an old master, and I had that framed for her for Christmas,” Gooden said. “It’s in our living room now.”
Several stops along the train’s route have grown into larger community events, and families getting together for the train’s passage are not uncommon.
“It’s the people themselves, regardless of who you are, coming together,” Gooden said. “We need more of that.”
Ruth Mann Collins grew up in Dungannon. She and her siblings well remember getting gifts from the Santa Train when they were children.
“Years ago, this is the only Christmas, just about, that we would have,” Collins said. “We’d walk over to the train and get some candy and a few little toys. Now we feel like it’s necessary for our family to give back, because they certainly helped us out a lot.”
On Saturday, Ruth was joined by seven of her siblings, her daughter (who had not visited the Santa Train in 40 years), and upwards of 40 more relatives. They were helping with a local effort to supplement what the Santa Train does for the Dungannon community by providing additional gift distributions adjacent to where the train is stopped.
Collins said she was spurred years ago to do something to help make sure no child left without a gift. Today the effort is headed up by the First Baptist Church and others in the community, like the Mann family.
“I’m really proud of all this,” Collins said.
The Santa Train originated in the early 1940s as a way for Kingsport’s merchants to thank residents of all the communities it passes through for shopping in the Model City. It is sometimes called the world’s largest Christmas parade because Santa rides the train 110 miles, then boards a fire engine to bring up the rear of the Kingsport Christmas Parade.
Today the train has four sponsors and receives donations from both businesses and individuals.
Its long-running sponsors are CSX (giving back to the communities its rail lines pass through and continuing a tradition established by the previous owner of the route, the Clinchfield Railroad), Food City (which has stores up and down the route and across the region, thanking its customers for helping it grow into the multi-state chain it has become), and, of course, the Kingsport Chamber (successor to the merchants’ organization that started it all, way back when).
Newer to the sponsorship lineup is Dignity U Wear.
Dignity U Wear is also all about giving back and sharing. The nonprofit is based in Jacksonville, Fla., as is CSX — that’s how the partnership with the Santa Train started. The organization itself was founded by Henri Landwirth, a survivor of the Holocaust, who though left homeless afterward, later became a successful American businessman.
He wanted to give back and reached out to people staying in a homeless shelter to ask what he could do for them that would help.
One man gave a simple answer: new underwear and socks.
Dignity U Wear continues to provide a lot of those things to the homeless. But its mission has grown to providing new clothing items to people, especially veterans and women and girls in crisis.
This was Dignity U Wear’s fifth year as a Santa Train sponsor, providing children’s clothing (hats, gloves, scarves) which are distributed in backpacks that are presorted for either boys or girls and within certain age ranges.