By Carla Caldwell
Playing Santa Claus started out as a lark for Fulton County Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford Jr., but the role has become part of him.
One blustery Christmas Eve back in the 1980s, Bedford mentioned to his wife, Patty, that a friend with a hardware store had a Santa suit. The judge said he was thinking about borrowing it. The pair thought that wearing the suit would be a hoot at a party for lawyers and their families and friends.
They were right. The judge’s bigger-than-life personality and the suit made a fine match.
At some point during the festivities, however, things took a serious turn.
“A friend’s wife said there was a little boy next door, a 6-year-old from Iran, who was excited about Santa and had never seen him,” Bedford said recently. “She brought the little boy back and when he saw me he ran over and grabbed me and hugged me. All of a sudden the power of the character hit me. I realized, ‘This child thinks I am Santa Claus.’ It was amazing. And it was a huge responsibility.”
That experience and several events that followed led Bedford in 1993 to found the Santa Project, a service program he co-sponsors with the Atlanta Bar Association to provide visits with Santa for children who might not otherwise get to see him. More than 1,000 children will participate this year.
Not long after the party where Bedford initially wore the suit, he told the story of the young boy to a client. It turned out the client’s father had a Santa suit he no longer used.
“He sent me the suit, belt and all, and it was nicer than what I had borrowed,” said Bedford. “It had a beautiful German wig and beard.”
The judge wore the gift when he and Patty, dressed and Mr. and Mrs. Claus, visited the children of friends on Christmas Eve. Along the way, the Northside Athletic Club (now the Northside YMCA), where the judged worked out, asked him to wear the suit to deliver toys for the Rick McDevitt Youth Center. The center provides services for children and families.
Bedford agreed to take the toys and was again greatly affected by the experience he had playing Santa.
“I told Patty we ought to be doing this [providing Santa visits] regularly for children who don’t have the ability to go to the mall to see Santa,” he said.
He persuaded the Atlanta Bar Association, of which he was an officer, to adopt the program and have lawyers help provide the experience for more children.
The organization embraced the idea. Since then the program has grown to include many elves and at least seven Santas who attend 15 to 18 events each year. This holiday season’s busy schedule includes a stop for 300 children ages infant to 18 at the McDevitt center, a stop for some 100 children ages infant to 16, and a trip to a Fulton County women’s shelter.
At an annual Division of Family and Children Services event, Bedford is the lead elf having passed the starring role to Judge M. Gino Brodgon. Other long-time participants in the Santa Project include lawyers Donald P. Edwards and Christopher J. McFadden.
Bedford gets help to coordinate and keep track of the events from his long-time judicial assistant Ellen Thomason, and from Stefanie Aponte, who works with the Atlanta Bar Association. The women, Thomason said, are known as Chief Elves. The extra work they put in for the Santa Project is absolutely worth the effort, she said.
Bedford said children rarely ask Santa for anything. It is parents who prod children to ask for specific items, he said. Children prefer to ask how Santa’s reindeer are doing and where he has parked them.
While the judge can no longer perform Santa duty at every event his project serves, he never misses a Christmas morning visit to the oncology unit at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston. Bedford lost his grandson Brandon at age 12 to the disease. “I think about him every time I am on the oncology floor,” said Bedford. “I do this to honor his memory.”