In a place that sees more snarls than smiles, a jolly old man has spent more than three decades bringing Christmas cheer to the most sensitive holiday travelers.
Every Christmas Eve since 1973, Liberty Lake resident Eugene LaLiberte, 87, has been distributing candy canes to young passengers arriving at Spokane International Airport.
“The kids can get stuck in a layover and be grumpy or upset,” LaLiberte said.
“When they get down here and see Santa Claus saying ‘Ho! Ho! Ho! Welcome to Spokane!’ you see a lot of smiles.”
The man in the big red suit waited at the end of the ramp leading down from a security checkpoint Sunday afternoon, wishing passengers a Merry Christmas and fishing individually wrapped candy canes from his red velvet sack.
Most children accepted the treats with gleeful faces, though some younger ones were hesitant to approach the bearded fellow.
“If I walk up and it looks like they’re going to cry, I just turn right around and walk away,” LaLiberte said.
“I know a year from now they’ll be all over me and hugging me.”
LaLiberte spends 50 hours a week volunteering at the Spokane Police Department’s senior volunteer division. Because of his connections to law enforcement, he has no trouble interacting with airport security and using their office to make a quick clothing change.
He even parks his car just outside the terminal with a sign on it: “Santa’s Car.”
“They don’t give me any trouble,” he said, though he does remember a time when he could walk right up to the airport gate to greet travelers.
Now he is confined to the lower levels outside the screening checkpoint.
There, LaLiberte checked the arrivals and departures screen to see when the next rush of children would come strolling down the ramp.
He paused for photos with families and occasionally sat down to take a break.
Santa’s cheer seems to extend beyond children, with kids from 1 to 92 approaching.
“Once in a while I’ll get an adult who says, ‘I’m a little kid,’ ” LaLiberte said.
“I just take care of everyone and try to make them happy on this holiday.”
The secret to Santa’s apparently endless candy cane stash comes from a keen knowledge of the shelf life of the peppermint treats.
Candy canes can be stored, if wrapped, for five years before they become stale, LaLiberte said.
So, in the weeks after the holiday, he buys deeply discounted candy canes and adds them to a running inventory of about 2,000, LaLiberte said.
Santa continued on into the night Sunday, hoping to wrap up his candy-giving by 8 p.m. so he could get back to his other duties. And, health willing, he will be back in one year’s time to greet a new set of young travelers.
“You can tell they’re happy when you see their faces,” he said.