Once you meet Jim LeMaster, it’s not surprising to learn that he helps hungry people by dressing up as Santa Claus to support a food bank.
LeMaster, 76, has the classic Santa look – balding, solid build, bushy eyebrows, a face that conveys warmth and humor, and a robust gray beard that he shaves just once a year, on New Year’s Day.
When he’s not portraying Santa to raise donations for Ferndale Food Bank, he’s donating tons of vegetables he grows in his two-acre garden.
And that’s just part of LeMaster’s community service that won him district and statewide honors in July 2017 from the Elks.
Rick Powell, a recent exalted ruler of Bellingham Elks Lodge No. 194, nominated LeMaster for the district honor.
“For me, it was a no-brainer,” says Powell, who first met LeMaster when he spoke at Powell’s church about the food bank. “I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving.”
The district, which covers Elks lodges from Seattle to Bellingham, named LeMaster its Citizen of the Year. After LeMaster won the district title, he won the statewide title from Washington State Elks Association.
Elks leaders say LeMaster might be the first local district winner to win the state honor.
“It was the one time in my life I was at a loss for words,” LeMaster says.
LeMaster’s grandfather homesteaded in Ferndale in the 1870s, so his Whatcom County roots run deep. He spent his childhood in Ferndale, near his current retirement farm on Paradise Road, but went to high school in Olympia.
A Navy veteran, LeMaster spent his adult years in the Portland-Vancouver area, working for Greyhound and a plywood mill. He retired at age 55, thanks to real estate investments. He also drove a truck part-time.
LeMaster moved back to Ferndale in 1999. His 18-acre spread is mostly corn fields, with some Christmas trees and, of course, his garden full of cucumbers and plenty of other vegetables.
“It grew and grew and I had a surplus,” LeMaster says. “I didn’t know what to do with it.”
So he donated his produce to the nearby Ferndale Food Bank – tons of produce over the years. That was the start of his connection to the food bank.
I just can’t describe it. If you’ve done volunteer work, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
LeMaster used to dress up as Santa Claus for family in Vancouver, Wash. After his move to Ferndale, his wife, Marsha, made him a new Santa suit. She dresses up as Mrs. Claus and together they appear at local stores and community centers, offering Santa visits and free Santa photos in return for donations to the food bank. They also make Christmas visits to nursing homes, day centers, churches, and at Ferndale’s Pioneer Park.
Marsha schedules their appearances while Jim tends to the garden.
“We’re a team in this,” he says.
LeMaster has been on the food bank’s board of directors for nine years and has been board president for two years.
He also regularly visits elderly neighbors and people in nursing homes, including people he didn’t already know. He sometimes brings garden produce with him on visits, and always brings friendly conservation.
“For some people, it’s the world having someone come and talk to them,” he says.
LeMaster says community service suits him.
“It’s a very good feeling to do it,” he says. “I just can’t describe it. If you’ve done volunteer work, you’ll know what I’m talking about.”