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Old Saint Mensch

Cherry Hill doctor's been playing Santa for three decades, heading off to visit children on Christmas morning.

Dr. Joseph Hassman of Cherry Hill gets dressed as Santa Claus. Photo by Curt Hudson
Dr. Joseph Hassman of Cherry Hill gets dressed as Santa Claus. Photo by Curt HudsonRead more

EVERY CHRISTMAS morning, after the cookies are gone and crumpled wrapping paper covers the Earth, Santa parks his sleigh in a back yard in Cherry Hill and takes Uncle Izzy's 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow out for one last holiday mission.

The car is snow white, just like the Santa beard Dr. Joseph Hassman, 79, adjusts in his dining room before pulling his uncle's beloved, mint Rolls out of the garage.

Hassman, who is Jewish, drives down an empty Interstate 295 South toward Camden dressed as Santa every year on Christmas morning He visits the Ronald McDonald House of Southern New Jersey with a growing number of family members, his elves, in tow.

Santa's become a universal figure who almost never fails to elicit smiles, Hassman said, and thinking of families living at that home during difficult times brings him to tears two days before Christmas.

"It brings joy to the hearts of all kids, no matter what their religion is," he said, clearing his throat. "But what brings me back to Ronald McDonald every year is that the kids that sit on your lap don't ask for dolls and trucks, they just want their brother or sister to be well enough to come home for the holidays."

The former Cherry Hill councilman first began playing Santa about 35 years ago, he said, when he volunteered to visit a nursing home in town, borrowing the red suit from a fellow councilman.

Hassman handed out German fruit cakes and he's been Santa ever since, visiting the Ronald McDonald House on Mickle Boulevard next to Cooper University Hospital every Christmas for the past 14 years. Hassman's wife, Lillian, is his Mrs. Claus, and several of his children, grandchildren and cousins all chip in.

Tomorrow, they'll help cook sausage and eggs for the house's 22 families with seriously ill children and help distribute donated gifts.

"It just chokes me up," Hassman said, wiping away tears. "I want my kids, my grandkids to know the value of giving back and that's why they come with me. I want them to carry on the tradition when I can't do it."

Teddy Thomas, executive director of Camden's Ronald McDonald House, said Hassman and his elves not only bring "holiday joy" to families there, but their visit also allows staff members to get home and spend time with their own families.

"It comes from his background of being a family doctor. He has just the right personality to do this," Thomas said. "He's a truly caring man."

Mrs. Claus agrees.

"It's really all about the kid in him," Lillian Hassman said.

Hassman, an osteopathic physician in Berlin, Camden County, grew up in North Philly near Franklin and Diamond streets. He graduated from Central High School before becoming a pharmacist and eventually attending the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. He's a member of Congregation Beth El in nearby Voorhees.

Methodical about his morning workouts and tennis game, Hassman has to stick a pillow under Santa's jacket for that perfect "bowl full of jelly" look. The jangle of the sleigh bells attached to his belt fills the house.

If it weren't for Santa, Hassman said he'd probably be playing tennis with some older guys on Christmas Day down in Delray Beach, Fla.

"It would be an empty day," he said. "I wouldn't let [the Ronald McDonald kids] down."

Someday, though, he may become Santa's grandfather, letting one of his sons take over the big, red suit and fire up Uncle Izzy's Rolls for the drive to Camden.

"I've told them to get ready, 'cause Daddy can't always do this," he said. "I've got the pillow for them."