FOREST GROVE, Ore. — The rain falls in buckets on a freezing winter’s night and landscapes are awash with a bone chilling cold, but in Forest Grove there are waves of good cheer and a unique holiday spirit from The Santa of Willamina Avenue.
The Santa of Willamina Avenue warms with friendly greetings for those who stop by, with “Well, hello there – how are you tonight? Come to see Santa Claus?”
Mickey Johnson has carried off the white-bearded role for nearly thirty years and here, in his annual yard performance on Willamina Avenue, since 2005.
The rehearsals began weeks ago when family and friends lent a hand to the retired drama teacher and built his North Pole.
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A dozen wooden, 8-foot tall ghost trees, plus a full-sized hardwood snowman, each adorned with hundreds of twinkling lights, surround the central piece: a large wooden sleigh. The sleigh is painted in brilliant red and green with two large initials, "S.C.," on either side.
There is little doubt to the casual passerby that Johnson owns a massive holiday yard extravaganza. Plus, he built all of the set pieces including Santa’s sleigh.
Nearby, his daughter, Cheryl Aamodt, gave special care to a sign of the season that holds memories of a time not so long ago. The sign read: “Donations accepted for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.”
"Well, I was feeling tired. Just tired, but that’s not unusual for a fom of four and my full time job as a nurse," said Aamodt. "So I went in to have a lab test and they were like, 'Uh Cheryl, your white blood count is through the roof. You need to see an oncologist tonight.'"
Grant's Getaways: The Santa of Willamina Avenue
Aamodt was diagnosed with leukemia in 2000. The diagnosis led to dark, uncertain times until doctors at Oregon Health and Sciences University developed a cancer drug that saved her life.
"That’s what’s kept me alive the last 20, almost 22 years," said Aamodt.
She is in remission, feeling well and her prospects are good.
But her father, Mickey Johnson, wanted to do more. He called it "payback."
"I decided to come up here with this idea," said Johnson. "It is free for anybody who wants to come and if they want to, they can make a donation to the Leukemia Society."
His idea seemed right at home since he’d built plenty of sets for high school plays.
For the role of his lifetime that honors his daughter’s life, Johnson becomes Santa for five nights before Christmas.
"It was already in his wheelhouse," said Aamodt. "He already had the Santa suit and he had built a lot of sets because of his ties with community theater in Forest Grove. As a high school drama teacher, he had done many, many productions."
"It doesn’t take much motivation," said Johnson. "As long as I have the kids that come and they apparently have a good time. I josh with them a lot. Not the typical Santa.”
He asked a youngster what he’d like Santa to bring on Christmas. The youngster was silent and Santa replied, "Oh, you don’t know? Well, you know what I bring if you don’t know? Socks and underwear."
It’s all good fun and the smiles break out as The Santa of Willamina Avenue enjoys time with the young ones, who are filled with wonder and grace.
"I was a teacher for 28 years and I always liked working with the kids. That’s just a part of my make-up, just a part of my nature!."
You’ll want to hurry here soon. Santa is at 1901 Willamina Avenue in Forest Grove.
Be sure to follow my Oregon adventures via the new Grant’s Getaways Podcast. Each segment is a story-telling session where I relate behind the scenes stories from four decades of travel and television reporting.
You can also learn more about many of my favorite Oregon travels and adventures in the Grant’s Getaways book series, including:
"Grants Getaways I," Photography by Steve Terrill
"Grant's Getaways II," Photography by Steve Terrill
"Grant’s Getaways: 101 Oregon Adventures," Photography by Jeff Kastner
"Grant’s Getaways: Guide to Wildlife Watching in Oregon," Photography by Jeff Kastner
"Grant’s Getaways: Oregon Adventures with the Kids," Photography by Jeff Kastner
The collection offers hundreds of outdoor activities across Oregon and promises to engage a kid of any age.
My next book, "Grant’s Getaways: Another 101 Oregon Adventures" will be published in November, '22.