Saltwater Portrait

Dennis Diehl is Cape Region's favorite Kris Kringle

Santa making his list in Rehoboth
December 18, 2012
Dennis Diehl stands in front of his Christmas tree with the photo of his father as Santa in 1947. BY RACHEL SWICK MAVITY

Santa Claus is already in town - he's been living in Rehoboth for nearly 35 years.

For the past four years, hundreds, even thousands, of Cape Region children have sat on Dennis Diehl's lap as he portrayed Santa Claus at the Rehoboth Bandstand.

Diehl says he remembers some children from year to year, but one girl stands out. A few years ago, a girl presented Santa with a three-page letter of what she wanted for Christmas:  a sister named Natalie, a friend, 10 pairs of sunglasses, a wedding dress, a new mom and a new dad and a tiara.

Diehl still laughs about the interesting and sometimes odd requests Santa receives.

"This year, the first girl I had asked for duct tape," Diehl said. "By the end of the night, 10 girls had asked for duct tape."

When he arrived home, Diehl, 64, asked his children and grandchildren about the duct tape trend, and to his surprise, they knew all about it.

"Girls are making dresses and skirts and even purses out of designer duct tape," explained his wife of 14 years, Sharonlee.

"Learn something new every year," Diehl said.

As a member of the Fraternal Order of Real-Bearded Santas, Diehl tries to be as authentic as possible. Each year he grows and bleaches his own beard, and refines his suit, which already features real brass buckles and leather boots.

Diehl said he always told his kids that he is a descendent of Santa to explain why Christmas is so important. Last year, his sister produced a photo of Diehl's father, dressed as Santa in 1947.

"I never saw the photo before," said Diehl, who never knew his father also played Santa. "It came as a real shock."

"My dad was all into Christmas," Diehl said. "He explained to me that there's a spirit that's so strong during Christmas. I now explain it the same way to my grandkids."

On Christmas Day, he shaves off the beard and starts again for next year.

Walk for buddies

More important to Diehl is his service to people living with Down syndrome.

When Diehl married Sharonlee 14 years ago, he met her brother, David, who has Down syndrome.

"It has such an effect on me that I came right back to Rehoboth and started researching ways to help," he said.

That October, the first Buddy Walk was held on the Boardwalk in Rehoboth. It drew 350 people. Since that first walk in 2006, Diehl has worked to expand the event. This year's Buddy walk drew 1,650 people and raised more than $60,000.

"I hope that is my legacy to the future," Diehl said. "This is what I want to be remembered for."

Diehl explained how his brother-in-law was able to keep the family together even after the death of his mother.

"It was just so touching watching him with the family," Diehl said. "He kept that family so close."

Diehl has made it his mission to help others with disabilities. He works with Dewey Beach Lions and CHIMES, a Millsboro-based service organization, to connect disabled students with a trainer who teaches them basic kitchen skills.

"It's a chance for them to have a paying job," Diehl said. "We were able to place our first student at a Harrington bakery."

Diehl is also working to expand Dining for Downs events in Delaware, as well as a race and pancake breakfasts. He said community support from Dewey Lions, as well as his church, Westminster Presbyterian, has fueled his volunteer efforts.

Plans for retirement

An accountant by trade, Diehl moved from Baltimore to Rehoboth Beach in 1978. His brother, also an accountant, already lived here and connected Diehl with a client interested in selling a gift shop just off Rehoboth Avenue.

Diehl jumped at the chance to run his own business, and opened MizzenMast, a long-time Rehoboth favorite, which closed last year.

In 2002, Diehl and Sharonlee opened Just Comfort Shoes, which now has two stores in Rehoboth and one in Baltimore. Diehl does the bookkeeping, while Sharonlee runs the store.

They hope to retire in 2013 and hand over the reins to Diehl's daughter.

Between the two of them, Diehl and Sharonlee have six children and six grandchildren. The grandkids visit often, especially during the holidays, but the couple hopes to spend more time with them as they prepare to retire.

"We haven't been on a real vacation since 2006," said Sharonlee with a smile.

"But in many ways we are home-bodies," Diehl said. "When you live at the beach, you don't really have to go anywhere."

Besides a few trips to Florida to visit family, the Diehls vacationed at the Silver Lake Guest House for the past four years - a treat made possible by winning several silent auctions.

"We love living here, so we are fine just staying downtown," Diehl said.

"Then you can walk home," Sharonlee said.

The couple met through mutual friends and carried on phone conversations for three months prior to meeting. Sharonlee was living in Pennsylvania and Diehl decided to visit her.

"I didn't want to come down here to meet someone," Sharonlee said.

Just over a year later, the couple married on the old Rehoboth bandstand, the same place where Diehl now greets the area's children as Santa.

When out of costume, Diehl serves on the Rehoboth Beach Parks and Transportation Committee where he advocates for bike trails.

"We are working on connecting Dewey to the bike trails," Diehl said. "It's a great idea, and I hope to see it happen."


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