August 20, 2001
Rotary honors the 'real' Santa and Mrs. Claus
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
Contrary to popular belief, Saint Nick doesn't reside at the North Pole but at the McMahon farm in Woodinville.
For 34 years, children have known this. They have whispered in John McMahon's ear, telling him they'd like a puppy, a Barbie doll, a horse or a Nintendo game. Some asked his assistance in helping Grandma to get well or in halting the arguing between Mom and Dad. Says McMahon, "A lot of them wish Christmas was everyday because mommy and daddy get along so good on that day."
John McMahon and his wife Helen are longtime Woodinville residents. Just after Thanksgiving every year, they slip into red Santa outfits that Helen designed and - poof! Santa and Mrs. Claus appear. They visit nursing homes, retirement centers and local tree lighting events. Santa makes a screaming entrance at the Lions Club, riding in on a red fire truck with sirens blaring. There, Santa and Mrs. Claus greet children, pose for photos and pass out candy canes and apples donated by the Eastern Washington Apple Association. And it's not just children who come to see them. One 96-year-old lady announced she never had the opportunity as a child to tell Santa her Christmas wish. Hoisting herself on Santa's lap, she itemized three things he could leave under her tree, "A Cadillac, an oil well and a good man."
When the holiday season ends and the Santa clothes hang in the closet, the couple continues to honor the spirit of giving. Once a week they drive to a bakery to pick up day-old bagels, loaves of bread and pastries. They haul the baked goods to a food bank in Burien and to the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle.
The plight of the disadvantaged never leaves their minds. Helen, along with members of the community, offers her sewing skills to stitch sleeping bags, fleece hats and mittens to donate to the homeless.
Helen explains, "Every Tuesday we are down [at the Sammamish Valley Grange] for about six hours and we furnish a free lunch for any volunteers who show up." The completed items are delivered to Hopelink (an organization that helps people become self-sufficient.) "Last year we donated 27 sleeping bags," she says, adding that the group has completed 22 so far this year.
Caring persons keep the volunteers stocked with supplies. Upholstery material, fleece and batting are left at the grange door, usually anonymously.
"Somebody came and left 12 large spools of thread and didn't leave their name - nothing!" says Helen, amazed at people's kindness.
This would be more than enough community service for most couples in their early 80s who have 13 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
But not for the McMahons. They not only focus on cheering children and helping the less fortunate, they also focus on education. As an example, Helen talks to students about Woodinville's past. "I go to elementary schools during the time they're studying pioneers and show them a churn and how to make butter," says Helen, a lifetime member of the Woodinville Historical Society. "I tell them about early days. I bring my old irons and washboard. The kids love to scrub."
To honor the couple's devotion to the community, the Woodinville Rotary acknowledged the McMahons as "Citizens of the Year" at their June 16 meeting.
They were presented a plaque of recognition and a $1,000 gift certificate to be given to the charity of their choice. The McMahons chose to divide their contribution equally, donating to the Little Bit Riders Program where John was one of the original board members and the Northshore Senior Center where Helen serves on the Woodinville branch steering committee.
"We wanted to recognize people in the community who have made a practice of giving to others," states John Hughes, Rotary Community Service Director. This is the Rotary's 12th selection for the Citizen of the Year honor.
Plaques on the walls of the McMahon home reflect the appreciation others have for their practice of giving, including one from the Bothell Alumni Association, another from the Grange and one from the Eastside Handicappers, a center in Kirkland that Helen managed in the 60s.
What motivates them to give? John McMahon says, "I think it comes from your family." Helen clarifies, "Mother was always making jelly or a loaf of bread and taking it to people who just moved in. The communities in those days pulled together." She goes on to say, "I think neighbors should get to know each other. By knowing your neighbor, you can know if there's anything you can do to help."
John recalls a time he was out of work. He'd just started a new job when an accident put him in the hospital with a broken jaw.
"The community pitched in to help," he says. A big dance with an orchestra was organized to raise money for the McMahons.
Says Helen, "They realized we had a lot of bills and our checking account was getting low."
John and Helen met over the telephone lines in 1940. Says Helen, "I got a job at the Metropolitan Pantorium (Laundry and Dry Cleaners). I learned how to run the switchboard there, the old-fashioned one."
John drove the company truck. One day he called in to report an accident and heard Helen's cheerful voice at the other end. "Then he came in and we started talking," says Helen. Soon John asked her to go bowling and, some time after, wedding bells rang for the couple. John served in World War II as a First Pharmacist's Mate prepping patients for surgery.
In 1957, he and Helen bought the charming 1923 home Helen's dad built and later sold. The two moved back into Helen's beloved childhood home.
Over the years, they witnessed growth in their Woodinville neighborhood. They remember when the real estate on Hollywood Hill listed at $50 an acre. They also recollect a time when just about everyone raised pigs and owned a cow and chickens.
Several years ago, John underwent surgery and had a triple by-pass. Today, he's strong and taking care of hall rentals for the Lions Club. Helen paints gorgeous mountain and farm scenes when she has a free moment. "She paints on rocks too," John mentions and adds, "She's just a natural."
But a plaque presented to John McMahon by the YMCA some time ago proclaims that he, too, is a natural.
Revealing his true identity, it reads: The 'real' Santa Claus.