Santa Lamm officially was born in 2002.
But if you want to understand how this became a holiday tradition in Jacksonville — one that has made it possible for thousands of area children to spend the Saturday before Christmas at a big-box store, using gift cards to pick out presents for themselves — you might as well start by going all the way back to the 1950s.
That’s when David Lamm was growing up, the youngest of three children, in Deep Creek, Virginia and then Rocky Mount, North Carolina. His dad worked at the post office. His family didn’t have much money. But, he says, they always had a big Christmas tree, all decorated, with gifts under it.
At age 78, he thinks back on childhood Christmas mornings and can’t remember ever seeing his parents opening presents. He realizes now they spent what they had on him and his older sister and brother. He remembers receiving old-school toys, like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry cap guns, and — every year — a new baseball.
“We’d play with that baseball all year,” he said. “By late November, we’d have it wrapped it black tape. We knew it just had to last a few more weeks. And then on Christmas morning, there’s a bright, shiny white baseball. That always would make me so happy.”
This tradition continued when Lamm ended up in Jacksonville — as a Times-Union sports editor, then a longtime sports radio host — and became a father. His two sons, Tom and Alex, have memories of finding a shiny new ball under the tree every year. Only in this case, it was an official NFL football.
“That was a big deal,” Alex said. “For 11 months, it would get all scuffed up. Then on December 25th, we’d get a brand new one.”
In the 1980s, when the boys were growing up, the Lamms started another tradition. They adopted a family each Christmas. They’d find one needy family and deliver Christmas, showing up at the door with some gifts for the kids and a certificate for a big ham or turkey. Sometimes they’d even bring a tree.
Listeners donated $20,000
Spin ahead to the early 2000s. Lamm was hosting a sports talk radio show at WFXJ (930 AM). During the holidays, when Lamm did a show from a remote location, they’d typically have listeners stop by and drop off toys for Christmas. It was about the third week of December and Lamm realized they hadn’t done that yet.
“So I just casually said, ‘Hey, if anybody out there wants to help some needy people, send me 10 or 20 bucks,’” he said.
He was expecting they’d raise a few hundred dollars. Maybe $1,000, if they were lucky.
In two days, they had more than $10,000.
“In five days, we had almost $20,000,” he said. “And I didn’t know what to do with all of that money.”
A friend who’s a lawyer said he needed to form a charity, or he’d be liable for taxes on that money. Lamm said it was too late for that year. He wanted to figure out a way to use the money to give kids some joy that Christmas.
He had people call in and give names. He called community organizations, nonprofits and churches. Within about a week, they had a list of about 300 kids.
He called a friend, Martin Poyner, a retired furniture salesman, and asked him if he could help him out.
“Well, bless his heart, he helped me for the next 19 years and probably did 80 percent of the work,” Lamm said.
'I love Christmas'
They started out by giving $75 gift cards to shop at Target — because Lamm had asked what it would cost for a child to buy a bike. He laughs about this now, saying he was naive to think kids wanted bicycles.
“They all want games and electronics and stuff like that,” he said.
While they pretty much winged it that first year, they did form a charity after that and develop more of a vetting process before the event, and more organization for it. But Lamm also told Poyner he didn’t want the event to grow to the point that they needed an office and paid staff.
“I wanted it so if you give me a dollar, a dollar is going to the kids,” he said.
The only expenses are a small annual fee to the state to remain active as a nonprofit, the cost of letters mailed to donors, and $250 to a CPA, just to have independent accounting of the money.
About a decade ago, they moved Santa Lamm to the Walmart Supercenter at the Regency Mall. Walmart makes a donation to the cause and provides milk, orange juice and snacks to the hundreds of kids, ages 3 to 13, who arrive the Saturday before Christmas. The children, who all have to be pre-registered and accompanied by an adult, now receive $100, tax-free gift cards.
The biggest challenge for Santa Lamm came a few months before Christmas 2019. Martin Poyner died.
Lamm already was dealing with health issues. After of couple of bad car accidents — the most recent one in 2014 involving a teenage driver when Lamm was on his way home from speaking to a Gator Club in Gainesville — his days of playing golf were done. And he figured maybe it was time to wrap up Santa Lamm.
“I told my sons, ‘Maybe we should shoot for 20 years and stop,’” he said. “They said, ‘No, Pop. We want to continue this.’”
Alex and his wife, Paige, have kept it going, along with Tom and his partner, Dee Dee.
“There really never was any doubt,” Alex said. “The four of us were excited and happy to take it on and continue Pop’s legacy.”
Not that, he says, his father ever tried to make this about a legacy. If anything, for someone who spent a career in media, his father didn’t spend much time trying to attract media attention. He didn’t ask TV cameras to be there when kids went shopping. In 20-plus years, the Times-Union has devoted a full story to Santa Lamm once, mentioning the event a few other times.
“Dad never did it for publicity,” Alex Lamm said.
The sports fans who have seen David Lamm in the past, and picture someone with an everyday Santa-esque build, chomping on an unlit cigar, will notice that he looks thinner these days. He says he’s lost more than 100 pounds, basically by eating slowly and eating about half as much.
But on the Saturday before Christmas, he’s still Santa Lamm, hoping kids can get their version of a shiny new baseball.
“I didn’t do this for any reason other than I love Christmas,” he said. “I want other kids to enjoy Christmas like I used to.”
For more information or to donate, go to: www.santalamm.org. To donate by mail, send a check made out to "The David Lamm Foundation" to The David Lamm Foundation, 5430 Whitney St., Jacksonville, FL 32277.
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This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: David Lamm and sons continue Santa Lamm Christmas tradition