Little Rock Santa Gets Tune-Up from UAMS Heart Surgeons

By Linda Satter

That’s what Roger Armstrong of Little Rock, who has been playing Santa since 1968, discovered early this Christmas season.

Normally, by the first week of November, he is posing for Christmas card pictures. Then he makes the rounds at the usual places — events for nonprofit groups, particularly those that help disabled children; library Christmas programs, including at the Clinton Presidential Library; private homes; nursing homes; corporate parties; small intimate gatherings; malls; Little Rock’s Big Jingle Jubilee Parade; and, for the last several years, as an official Santa for Bass Pro Shops in Little Rock.

But this year, “It was getting to where it was getting hard to get in the sleigh,” recalled the normally jolly fellow with the naturally white beard. “It was hard to walk around the shopping centers. I’d get out of breath.”

So, on Friday, Nov. 19, he found himself undergoing tests at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). Doctors quickly found the problem: a blockage requiring coronary artery bypass surgery.

“I said, ‘Let’s schedule it for January sometime,’” Armstrong said. “They told me, ‘We’re going to do it Monday.’”

So, despite his desire to complete Santa’s rounds, he was quickly scheduled for surgery to be led by Jay K. Bhama, M.D., a nationally recognized heart surgeon who is chief of the UAMS College of Medicine’s Division of Cardiovascular Surgery and surgical director of the UAMS Heart Center.

But first, there was the matter of what to do about his beard, which some thought would have to be shaved to keep it from getting in the way of the surgery.

Armstrong said he hadn’t cut his beard since his now-adult children were small. The white beard has become part of his identity, making him recognizable as Santa Claus even in July.

“I said, ‘No, not by the hair on my chinny chin chin,’” Armstrong recalled.

Armstrong as Santa in his full gear

Armstrong as Santa in his full gear

Luckily, Armstrong’s daughter, Jenny, came up with a solution that saved the day for Santa, his legions of fans and even the surgeons, who certainly didn’t want to be mistaken for Grinches. She braided Santa’s mass of white strands, allowing them to be easily be tucked up under his chin during surgery.

 Armstrong’s expected double bypass operation, in which blood flow is redirected around a section of a blocked or partially blocked artery, turned into a triple-bypass surgery — and just in the nick of time.

“It turned out to be a good thing,” Armstrong said. “They saved my life.”

A couple of weeks later, as the 74-year-old Armstrong recuperated at a rehabilitation center, he was already making plans to suit up as Santa as soon as doctors allow — although that will probably have to wait until next year.

He talked about why being Santa means so much to him.

“I started being Santa in 1968,” he said. “A social worker and I decided to provide Christmas for a little community in Perry, Arkansas — a hardscrabble little community in the woods.”

He said they collected as many toys as they could from various places, but many places only had broken toys to donate. He and the social worker spent a Saturday fixing all the broken ones.

Armstrong as Santa

Armstrong as Santa

He remembers dressing up in his first Santa suit — reconfigured pajamas from Walmart and a fake beard that would later inspire the real one — and heading out in search of the tiny community.

“I wasn’t Santa when I went out there, but when I saw the little kids with no shoes in the cold, and yet with very happy faces, it did something to me,” he said.

Armstrong remembered handing out presents as it snowed, and then reaching into the bag to pull out the last girl toy — a Barbie doll — and handing it to a girl who wasn’t wearing any shoes.

The girl unwrapped the doll and remarked, “It only has one arm.”

As Armstrong pondered what to do, the girl said, “I’ll just have to love her more.”

“That changed me,” he said. “Although I was in a little ’65 Ford when I went out there, suddenly I was driving a sleigh.”

It’s something he enjoyed so much, he said, that “every Christmas since then, I’ve done Santa for somebody. It’s become a part of my life. So now, I’m Santa all year round, even when I’m not in red. Children come up and hug my knees.”

Armstrong at home after surgery.

Armstrong at home after surgery.

Becoming contemplative, he shook his head and added, “A lot of children see Santa as a miracle worker who can do anything. I’m very aware of Santa’s limitations. I can’t bring people home from the service. I can’t do anything about a divorce. So I try to find out things to help them.”

For one thing, he listens.

“Children will tell me what’s on their minds,” he said. “There are lots of things parents don’t know that their kids are thinking about.”

Armstrong said that although he played Santa at Bass Pro in 2020, the first Christmas season after COVID-19 invaded the United States, a huge Plexiglas shield separated him from the children, and it just wasn’t the same.

Soon, he said, “I hope to get back to where kids can come up and sit on my knee,” and he can listen to them and maybe offer them some hope.

Meanwhile, he said, Bhama and the team at UAMS that provided his own Christmas miracle could be in for a surprise next year.

“I told him, ‘Maybe next year when you have your party at Christmas, Santa will show up.’”