For 22 years, insurance agent Bob Magner has donned a red suit and a fake beard and played Santa at Boston Children’s Hospital on Christmas morning.
For even longer, Magner, 52, has played a less visible, but more important role -- volunteer extraordinaire. Every Sunday for the last two-dozen years, Magner has traveled from his home in Scituate to the Boston hospital to visit sick children, never missing more than two Sundays in any year.
“The most amazing thing about Bob is that he comes in every Sunday with a smile on his face no matter what, even in a blizzard,” Barbara Blundell, supervisor of volunteers, said. “We have 500 to 600 volunteers and not all of them are like Bob.”
During his hours at the hospital, Magner is a hands-on volunteer. “He plays with children of all ages in a specific unit and does whatever the patient needs for comfort,” Blundell said.
Charge nurse Mary Trahon agreed. “He does anything he can for the kids,” she said. “If a baby is crying, he will be the first one in to take care of it, before any of us can get there.”
Trahon has known Magner (the staff calls him “Santa”) since he started volunteering. “He and his mother have both volunteered here for a long time,” Trahon said. “I adore him. He is very personable and knows everyone’s name and makes it a point to know everyone’s name.”
According to Trahon, Magner is also popular with families. “Many long-term patients and families look forward to Sundays knowing Bob will be there,” Trahon said.
Besides his weekly Sunday visits, Magner has the starring role at the hospital on Christmas Day. It takes him several weeks to prepare.
Magner tailors each visit from “Santa” to meet the needs of individual families. He surprises each child with a gift provided by the hospital or the family. He’ll also perform family’s special requests. “If they want me to tell a story along with the gift, I do it -- whatever the family wants,” Magner said.
He delights in the expressions on children’s faces when they see him enter their rooms. One of Magner’s favorite memories is that of a young boy who received an autographed photo of Boston Bruins hockey player Ray Bourque.
“His face lit up and he nearly jumped out of bed when he saw it. Then he asked me, 'Santa do you really know Ray Bourque?' I told him, ‘Of course I do. He skates on my pond at the North Pole,’” Magner said.
Not all of Magner’s memories are happy ones. One year, about a week before Christmas, the father of a little boy with whom Magner had spent a lot of time told Magner he had a special gift that he wanted Santa to deliver to his son. Tragically, the little boy passed away on Christmas Day, before Santa was able to visit him. “His father stopped me and handed me the present he had bought for his son. He told me to make sure I gave it to another special child,” Magner said.
Magner is no stranger to volunteering, having first given his time during his junior year in high school in Scituate, his hometown. The charity was the Sunlight House for special needs’ children. He later joined the Peace Corps and served a mission in Gambia, where he educated people on health issues and gave medical care.
During his college years, at Providence College, Magner continued to volunteer for various causes and kept it up after he graduated with a degree in business management. He and his father helped with several fundraisers for the Jimmy Fund. He then learned about the need for volunteers at the children’s hospital. “I saw the video and decided I wanted to sign up...and I have been there ever since,” Magner said.
Of his volunteer work, Magner says simply, “I enjoy helping people out. That is the way I was brought up, and I just think it is a nice thing to do.”
Magner’s dedication to children and their families has earned him honors. He attended the ESPY Awards, ESPN’s annual sports award, where he walked the red carpet in Los Angeles for his volunteer work. He also won a Heroes Among Us Award from the Boston Celtics for his special contribution to the community. The Boston Red Sox recognized him, as well. He received the Bob Groden Distinguished Service Award, the hospital’s highest award given to those who display exceptional leadership as a volunteer.
Magner said the reaction from children is the greatest reward he’s received.
“I know they say it is hard to say whether babies recognize you or not,” he said. “But when I look into their eyes, I know they recognize me.”
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.