Many Lewes residents have likely seen Richard Stinger, but they might know him by another name.
This time of year, Stinger is prone to throw on a bright red suit and hat – of which he has two – hop on his sleigh – i.e. Harley Davidson – and cruise down Second Street, besprinkling holiday cheer.
“I try to spread the spirit of Christmas,” he said. “This time of year is a special time of year.”
The 55-year-old got his start playing jolly old Saint Nick in 1990. At the time, he was a cop in Montgomery County, Pa.
One day on patrol, a young boy named Michael approached Stinger, and asked if he could sit in his police car. Stinger obliged, letting the boy sit in the driver’s seat and turn on the red and blue lights.
Stinger said he saw the boy again a couple months later. The boy again greeted him, and Stinger and the boy’s mother struck up a conversation. “Mom felt bad that it was going to be a bad holiday season for her son and two other children,” he said.
The boy’s mother told Stinger the children’s father left the family and did not pay child support – she could not afford much in the way of gifts.
Michael, only 5 years old, was questioning whether Santa Claus really existed, Stinger said.
Stinger told some fellow officers and members of the community about Michael. “We made sure these kids had a Christmas that year,” he said.
Stinger and his friends pitched in to buy the family a tree, presents and a full Christmas dinner. A friend took Polaroids of Stinger as Santa placing presents under the tree, which they left for the children to find on Christmas morning.
Stinger saw Michael days later. The boy ran up to him and said, “There really is a Santa Claus,” Stinger said.
“That’s what makes you a good person – when you put other people before yourself,” he said. “It’s not about riding around giving out candy canes. Christmas is about what’s in your heart.”
Stinger has played Santa every year since 1990, first in Collegeville, Pa., then later in Lewes.
Stinger’s Canary Creek home is decorated extensively for the holiday. He said his love of Christmas stems from his childhood, as one of six brothers and sisters. “My mother loved Christmas,” he said.
The holiday was not centered on presents when he was a kid, Stinger said; it was about being with family.
“We were poor, but we weren’t destitute,” he said. Stinger said he and his siblings received some gifts from his parents. “More than that, you knew they loved you,” he said.
This holiday marks 20 years since Stinger's mother passed. “She knew she was terminally ill,” he said. “She said… ‘I only want to make it through Christmas.”
She did, and his mother was able to gather with her family one last time, he said. “Less than three weeks later, she was gone,” Stinger said.
The same year, 1993, Stinger and his first wife divorced, and he left the police force. Stinger had gained custody of his son, Jake, and as a single parent, he said, the shift work was difficult. “It was a choice I had to make. What did I want to be? A dad or a cop?” he said.
Stinger is now a senior special investigator at Liberty Mutual Insurance, where he has worked for 18 years.
Stinger met his current wife, Billie, in 1995, when he was called to investigate an insurance claim she made. “She got paid,” he said.
The two have been together since. They married in 2000.
In July 2012, Billie retired from a 40-year career as a registrar for the University of Pennsylvania. Jake had finished school and moved out of his father and stepmother’s home, and Stinger said he and Billie decided it was time for a change.
Stinger said they had traveled to Lewes before on his motorcycle, and they both enjoyed the area. “The area is beautiful – you can’t beat it,” he said. “It’s a slice of heaven.”
Growing up in South Philadelphia, he said, every family in the neighborhood knew one another and looked out for each other. “In a sense, Lewes is like that,” he said. If you have dogs and kids, you get to know everybody.”
Stinger said he got to know all of his Canary Creek neighbors thanks partly to his dog, Harley, who was one of the reasons the couple decided to settle in Lewes.
He said when they brought Harley to Lewes for the first time in 2005, they loved the dog-friendly attitude of Second Street, with water bowls outside of many businesses and shop owners eager to feed Harley treats.
Harley was recently diagnosed with cancer and had to be put down after Thanksgiving, Billie said. “He was my buddy, my co-pilot,” Stinger said.
Stinger and Billie made a friend for life in P.U.P.S. owner Lesley Bowers, a true lover of animals, Stinger said. On Dec. 1, Stinger posed for photos with P.U.P.S. customers’ pets.
Stinger made another appearance for pet photos with Santa Dec. 14 at the Petsmart in Millsboro, with donations benefiting Delaware SPCA.
He said he still makes trips to Pennsylvania to play Santa for fire company fundraisers and veterans’ homes, and both venues remain close to his heart. “Both Billie and I have lost folks while serving,” he said.
Jake, now 26, is an emergency medical technician and a firefighter in Pennsylvania. “He really gives back to the community,” Stinger said. “He’s a good kid.”
Stinger said he is not trying to replace other area Santas, and he never gets paid for his time. “I don’t take any money,” he said. “That defeats the whole meaning of Christmas.”
Stinger said he is willing to help with local fundraisers, charities or just make an appearance at a family’s home. “This place is very important to both of us,” Stinger said of he and Billie.
“I’ve seen people at their very worst. At Christmas, when I’m Santa Claus, I only see them at their best,” Stinger said. “That does a whole lot to fill you up for an entire year.”
To contact Stinger, email email@example.com or call 302-644-4548.