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Holiday role: DiGesare's Santa made annual visits in Schenectady

Holiday role: DiGesare's Santa made annual visits in Schenectady

Who knew Father Christmas was a sensitive plumber, unwavering in conviction to love, volunteerism, generosity?
Holiday role: DiGesare's Santa made annual visits in Schenectady
Michael, Dennis and David DiGesare stand in front of a portrait of their late father, Leo DiGesare.
Photographer: Courtesy of DiGesare family

Some boys and girls question the existence of Santa Claus.

That was never an option for the DiGesare boys. They knew Santa was real.

Every Christmas Eve from the early 1950s into the early 1980s, Elio "Leo" DiGesare became Father Christmas.

David, Dennis and Michael DiGesare watched as their father dressed in his Christmas reds and whites. Once the full white beard and long crimson cap were secured, Leo would leave the family home on Selden Street in Schenectady and visit children in city hospitals.

"It was very satisfying knowing my father was doing something for others on Christmas Eve when everybody else was probably home with their families," said David DiGesare, at 65 the oldest of the brothers.

Leo DiGesare graduated from Nott Terrace High School in 1945 and started a photography business. He then opened a small grocery store before beginning an apprenticeship for plumbing. He started DiGesare Plumbing and Heating in 1950.

DiGesare worked for his community. He belonged to Calvary Tabernacle Church and later Bethel Full Gospel Church. He volunteered at the City Mission of Schenectady.

The Christmas masquerade and mobilization was Leo's idea. He had a second idea - son David would wear an elf costume and carry the bag of gifts Santa would open for the kids.

"He had a dozen close friends and every year he would stop at their houses, they'd wait up for him," said David, who added the elf gig lasted only a few years.

The guys took turn accompanying their father on his yuletide rounds. Once older, and with driver's licenses, they became Santa's chauffeurs.

"His emotion was unbelievable," said Dennis, 62. "I saw him at times when I used to go, and stop at an elevator and just cry.

"He was a big man, a good-sized guy, he was a plumber and worked hard," Dennis added. "He wasn't the type you would ever think would cry. I vividly remember him going to these hospital rooms and here we are healthy and some of these kids were not."

Bad weather never stopped Leo. The flu stopped him, one year. Dennis wore the costume, carried the bag of toys and carried on the tradition.

The DiGesare boys said Leo interpreted Santa in a joyous and jovial way. "He really played the part, he really enjoyed it," said Michael, the youngest at 60.

As Santa, DiGesare invested in the old-fashioned "netted"" Christmas stockings that were packed full of candy and small toys. He always worked on his portrayal, even after his sons married and started their own families.

"Dad used to come to the house and try to convince the kids he wasn't Grandpa, that he was Santa," Dennis said. "But they didn't really buy it."

The guys said their father was generous in other ways. If he installed a boiler for a family in financial difficulty, he wouldn't bring them a bill; if it was around the holidays, he would bring them groceries and tell them not to worry about payment.

DiGesare stopped visiting hospitals during the early 1980s, but kept up appearances for family and friends until around 2013. He was still volunteering at the City Mission, filling school backpacks with food, a few months before his death.

DiGesare, who was married to Elizabeth "Betty" DiGesare for 65 years, died on Nov. 2, 2015. Betty, who would occasionally accompany her husband on his rounds, passed away in 2017.

The DiGesare boys have carried on their father's business, now known as The DiGesare Group on Carman Road in Guilderland.

"We want to emphasize that what our parents did as Santa was only one way of them showing us boys how to be generous and give back to those in need, to those who could never repay the good done to them," Michael said. "How to give back and serve our community and church, those in need.

"Even though growing up our parents could not give us much, they gave us their unconditional love and taught us many life lessons," Michael added.

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]


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