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Cherry Hill's 'Dr. Christmas' dies just shy of his favorite holiday

For 40 years, Robert J. Maro Sr. transformed the yard at his Cherry Hill home into a Christmas extravaganza that became a must-see for holiday-lights enthusiasts across the region.

In 2002, Dr Robert Maro, Sr. gave away the decorations that made his home in Cherry Hill a must-see during the Christmas season for 40 years. DAVID M WARREN/Staff Photographer
In 2002, Dr Robert Maro, Sr. gave away the decorations that made his home in Cherry Hill a must-see during the Christmas season for 40 years. DAVID M WARREN/Staff PhotographerRead moreDAVID M WARREN

Dr. Robert J. Maro Sr. did everything in life big, especially Christmas.

Each season, for 40 years, he transformed the yard at his Cherry Hill home into a Christmas extravaganza that became a must-see for holiday-lights peepers across the region and made the Griswolds' decorations, his family joked, look sparse.

The family physician who also dressed up as Santa for about six decades, owning two Santa suits, and whose patients called him "Dr. Christmas," died on Friday, Dec. 22, three days before his beloved holiday, after a battle with parotid cancer. He was 87.

Dr. Maro pursued his life's passions – from his work as a physician to his love of the Philadelphia Eagles – with an all-in spirit and intensity.

"He was a big colorful person," Maro's daughter, Pat DeHart, said Sunday. "He had this really serious intent to be best doctor in the world and then he had this whole screwball side of him where he would do a thousand outrageous things."

DeHart, 61, one of five siblings, recalled how one day her father took his car to a local dealership for an oil change. As he sat in the service waiting room, a man next to him pointed out a silver Cadillac with souped-up, gold-rimmed wheels. The man chortled, "Wow, look at that car; that's a car only a pimp daddy would like."

Dr. Maro knew he had to have the $50,000 car. He drove home with it and named it "Pimp Daddy." He'd pulled into the parking lot at the Capital Grille in Cherry Hill, one of his favorite restaurants, with instructions to the valet staff, "Take good care of Pimp Daddy," he'd say, according to DeHart.

"It was over the top, just like him," said DeHart, who lives in Moorestown. "He didn't do anything small; everything he did was huge."

Dr. Maro was fanatical about the Eagles. He and his wife, Doris, 86, had season tickets.

"He and my mom never missed a game," said their son Mike. "My parents went to every single home game for 47 years. We would move Thanksgiving dinner to a different day if there was an Eagles conflict."

Mike Maro recounted how every New Year's Eve, his father and three of his friends would dress up in tuxedos and stay out all night drinking. At 8 a.m. on New Year's Day, they'd head to the Golden Pheasant Golf Club in Lumberton, where they'd play 18 holes, still in their tuxes.

Dr. Maro, who earned a place on Cherry Hill's "Wall of Fame" for his contributions to the township, was famous in his neighborhood for Christmas – and practical jokes. Dr. Maro once bought a live chicken, put a collar around its neck, walked it across the street and tied the leash to his neighbor's front door. He rang the bell before dashing away, DeHart remembered.

Dr. Maro's life unfolded as a "rags-to-riches" story, she said.

Born in 1930, he grew up near the Philadelphia Museum of Art in what was then a poor neighborhood. His father was a "bookmaker" and something of a "scoundrel," DeHart said. His mother died of cancer when he was 17, leaving Dr. Maro to take care of his younger siblings, ages 15 and 10, she said.

"His mother left a big hole in his heart, so he always made a big deal out of Christmas," DeHart said. "Once he had his own children, he wanted to make sure that we had a wonderful Christmas experience."

Dr. Maro's decorations display was modest, at first. He bought his first plastic Santa when he was a young doctor living in South Philadelphia roughly 60 years ago.

Dr. Maro attended La Salle College High School and then got a full scholarship to La Salle University. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson University at what is now Sidney Kimmel Medical College. He later helped put all 14 of his grandchildren through college, giving them each $40,000, DeHart said.

Gerald Marks, 92, a renown surgeon from Philadelphia, said he met Dr. Maro when he was a medical student at Jefferson.

"He lived the American dream in the sense that he started with very little and ended up making a major contribution," Marks said. "He affected a lot of lives. He was a great diagnostician."

Dr. Maro moved his medical practice from South Philadelphia to Cherry Hill in the early 1960s, when the family moved into their home in Barclay Farms that exploded in wonderland zeal each Christmas.

It took five full weekends with about 30 family members and friends working day and night to set up all the lights and displays. Mike Maro, 57, said he and his brother, Joe, 59, were tasked with setting up the reindeer on the roof.

The working merry-go-round was the hardest display to set up. "It was constantly breaking down," Mike said.

All the lights and mechanical statues were tethered to extension cords that snaked into the house, stuffed into almost every available plug. A patch of yard dubbed "Snowman Village" featured 30 snowmen.

"The house was not capable of handling that much power. We were blowing fuses constantly," said Mike, adding that, as an adult, he and his siblings took turns babysitting the house when his parents went out for fear it would burn down.

DeHart said her father worried he wouldn't make it to Christmas this year. He had been ill for a while and lived in an assisted-living facility with his wife of 64 years. In late November, he handed DeHart a plastic bag filled with Christmas cards, each with an individualized handwritten note from him. He instructed her to mail them a week before Christmas.

DeHart recently opened her card. At the bottom, her father wrote, "Love, from heaven, Dad."

In addition to his wife, sons Mike and Joe, and daughter Pat, Dr. Maro is survived by son Robert J. Jr.; 14 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and a brother, Joseph.  A daughter, Kathleen "Bunkey" Frame, died earlier this year.

Relatives and friends are invited to a viewing on Tuesday, Dec. 26, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Holy Eucharist Catholic Church, 344 Kresson Rd., Cherry Hill. A funeral Mass will be celebrated Wednesday, Dec. 27, at 11:30 a.m., with a viewing preceding from 10 to 11 a.m.