- The Washington Times - Monday, December 12, 2016

A former Army Ranger and professionally trained Santa Claus says a recent visit with a terminally ill child left him an emotional wreck for days.

Eric Schmitt-Matzen, 60, is such a convincing Santa Claus that he is hired to give 80 professional jobs per year. The 310-pound veteran, who stands 6-foot-tall, was even born on St. Nicholas Day — Dec. 6. He relishes the opportunity to spread cheer, but told a Knoxville, Tennessee, newspaper on Sunday that a call just weeks ago shook him as much as events he experienced in the military.

“I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I’ve seen my share of [stuff],” Mr. Matzen, president of Packing Seals & Engineering, told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “But I ran by the nurses’ station bawling my head off. I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it.’”

Mr. Matzen, who lives in Caryville, said he was given 15 minutes to get to a local hospital shortly after arriving home from work. The situation was so dire for a 5-year-old boy that the nurse told him not to change into his Santa Claus outfit and simply bring a pair of suspenders.

“When I walked in, he was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep,” the veteran said. “I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my Number One elf!’ He looked up and said, ‘I am?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ “

The veteran then revealed a toy the child’s mother had given him just before entering the room. The boy, pleased with his gift and the meeting, soon redirected his attention back toward Santa.

‘“They say I’m gonna die,” he said. “How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?”

Mr. Schmitt-Matzen told the child that he could do Santa a “big favor” by telling anyone he meets that he’s “Santa’s Number One elf.”

“I know they’ll let you in,” Mr. Schmitt-Matzen told the boy, the newspaper reported.

“He said, ‘They will?’ [and] I said, ‘Sure!’ ” the veteran continued.

The boy sat up in his hospital bed, hugged Santa Claus, and then peacefully died in his arms.

“I cried all the way home,” Mr. Schmitt-Matzen told the newspaper. “I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive.”

The veteran said it was tough to shake the moment, but a recent performance with joyful kids brought him “back into the fold.”

“It made me realize the role I have to play,” he added.

Update: The Knoxville News Sentinel said Wednesday that additional scrutiny into Mr. Schmitt-Matzen’s background has checked out, but that his story cannot be verified.

“Schmitt-Matzen had not approached the News Sentinel originally with the story. The information came to the newspaper indirectly through a known source, and Schmitt-Matzen was then contacted and asked about the incident,” the newspaper wrote. “At the time of that initial interview, he said he had promised to protect the identities of the child’s family and the nurse who summoned him to the hospital bedside. In follow-up interviews, he has continued to hold this position and stand by his account.”

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