Imagine adopting Santa Claus.
This is not a Hallmark movie script though, perhaps, it has the making of one.
It’s the story of a friendship born out of loneliness.
Bobbe MacKenzie is a longtime Vernonite, former businesswoman, and now a volunteer director with the Upper Room Mission (URM). And it was at the Mission where she befriended Santa, whose given name was John Henry Mitschke, a farm boy born and raised on the family property in Langenburg, Sask. in 1929.
Mitschke’s beloved wife of 51 years, Mary, died in 2011, and his companion after, Jackie Johnson, passed in 2020.
After walking 36 blocks from his home to the Vernon Courthouse at 6:30 each morning to greet the employees, Mitschke would then wander down another seven blocks to the Mission for a two-hour volunteer shift. He started this during the time of COVID in 2020, so he’d sit outside the facility. He’d pick up garbage and he would talk to the people of the URM.
“He was lonely,” said MacKenzie, who ran the adjacent Mission Thrift Store. She struck up a friendship with Mitschke, who had no kids but did have a sister back in Saskatchewan.
“I’d take him to get haircuts. I’d help him buy groceries.”
Mitschke’s professional career began at the age of 25 when he joined radio stations in Weyburn and Estevan, Sask. installing studio and transmitter equipment. He and Mary moved to Vernon in 1970 where he became the engineer for CJIB Radio. His career there lasted 20 years, retiring in 1990.
On the station’s phone list, Mitschke had the transmitter listed as Lotta Watts, showing a sly sense of humour.
“He kept a copy of every staff list at the station from the time he arrived until the time he left,” said longtime CJIB morning man Frank Martina.
Mitschke appears in more photo albums in the North Okanagan (and Yuma, Arizona, where he and Mary would winter upon retirement) than most men, as he and his wife played Santa and Mrs. Claus every year. Mitschke’s natural white beard made him a ringer for Santa even in the heart of summer.
He had been walking in downtown Vernon one August afternoon when a toddler yelled out, ‘SANTA.’ Mitschke stopped, played the role without costume, and continued with his day.
He loved children and donated all the money he made as Santa through the years and his entire estate to Variety – the Children’s Charity of BC.
Mitschke died in Vernon Jubilee Hospital on June 27, just 13 days shy of his 94th birthday. In his final days, he received great care from the staff at VJH, and from Mission friends MacKenzie and Brenda Toews.
“I remember asking him if he adopted me or I adopted him,” said MacKenzie of her late friend.
A Celebration of Life will be held for Mitschke at the Vernon Upper Room Mission on Saturday, Sept. 9, at 11 a.m. Pastor David Hunter and Pastor Brent Henderson presiding. All who loved this gentle, kind man are welcome to attend and share their memories.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Vernon Upper Room Mission.