Joe De Felice may officially be semiretired, but there's little evidence that he's slowed down.
The man who was born in Hudson County, graduated from St. Peter's College in Jersey City, and migrated to South Jersey in 1960 to use his degree in industrial management as a pioneer in data processing, has enjoyed every phase of his life.
But ask De Felice, 73, about the high points, and he points proudly to his latest stint, as Santa Claus.
"I've always looked the part, even when I weighed far less," says the Burlington Township resident, who sports a long white beard that's all his own.
Friends and family initially invited him to play the role at private gatherings. When he wasn't involved in his other pursuits, from barbershop singing with the local Pine Barons to computer consulting to furthering Italian culture through Amici Della Lingua, a South Jersey language and cultural arts club, he was happy to don the suit.
"Then I decided to supplement my income in the late 1990s as a school bus driver," said De Felice, who drove for the Mount Laurel and Moorestown districts. "I dressed up for every holiday, and, of course, I played Santa Claus every year."
Given his natural resemblance and his great affection for children - he is the father of four and grandfather of six - De Felice eventually decided to give the world of "professional" St. Nicks a whirl. He morphed into "Santa Joe."
"I initially worked through Cherry Hill Photo, which is a major source of Santa Clauses, and I was sent all over the place. It was absolutely like being a kid in a candy store for me," said De Felice, who worked in various malls including Granite Run and Quakerbridge and traveled to New York and even Massachusetts.
Santa Joe worked the poignant 2001 post-9/11 Christmas. "Kids were very quiet and subdued, and so many said, 'I don't want anything except for everyone to be safe.' "
He has weathered countless tugs at his beard, and has always proven that yes, it's truly his. And he has concluded that little girls are generally more wide-eyed than little guys, who need a little more drawing out.
Santa Joe has heard many children beg Santa to bring back daddy or mommy in families split by divorce and to bring grandpa back from heaven.
"I've also watched terribly frustrated parents who thought they'd prepared their kids for the visit to Santa," De Felice said. "Then the kids scream at the sight of me and won't even come near me."
Santa Joe does his best to comfort those skittish children and typically will smile broadly and hold out his arms. Sometimes that does the trick, sometimes it doesn't. But it's all in a day's work for a Santa.
These days, Santa Joe is booked by a Los Angeles agency and is a loyal member in good standing of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas (AORBS), one of six national Santa organizations around the country.
Yes, the Santa suit is hot - it's 100 percent wool - and yes, the lines get longer as Christmas Eve approaches. But De Felice's philosophy is that you never rush a child. "Santas have to be very special people to kids, and that includes patience. The world may be in a rush, but Santa Claus shouldn't be."
See Santa Joe
Santa Joe will be on duty at Funplex on Route 38 in Mount Laurel Fridays through Sundays through Dec. 23. He also will arrange private appearances. Call 1-800-752-4807.