KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Sam Venable knew he had found a sad story, but he didn’t know just how many hearts it would break.
Venable’s column about a terminally ill 5-year-old boy dying in Santa’s arms has spread everywhere since its publication Sunday in the Tennessee newspaper. Among other things, it nails the emotional richness of the holiday season.
In an interview, Eric Schmitt-Matzen, the Santa in Venable’s column, relayed his brief interaction with the boy.
“I said, ‘What’s this I hear that you think you’re going to miss Christmas?’
“He just kind of nodded at me, so I said, ‘No way! Your present’s already been made up for you, and here it is.’”
“He said, ‘They say I’m dying.’”
“I said, ‘Will you do me a favor?’”
“He said, ‘Sure!’”
“When you get to those pearly gates, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s No. 1 elf, and I know they’ll let you in.”
“He said, ‘I am?’”
“I said, ‘Sure you are!’”
“He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’”
“And he passed before I could say anything, so I just hung on to him.”
After the boy’s family realized he had died, Schmitt-Matzen said he left the hospital and cried all the way home. Venable had a similar reaction.
“I’ve gotten a big response to this,” Venable said. “People have told me that they were crying when they read it, and I tell them that I was crying when I wrote it.”
It all started several weeks ago when Schmitt-Matzen got a call after work.
“It was a nurse I know at the hospital,” Schmitt-Matzen told the News-Sentinel. “She said there was a very sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus.”
Schmitt-Matzen, whose 300-pound frame and real white beard make him a popular Santa in the Knoxville area, got to the hospital in 15 minutes and requested that anyone leave the room if they were about to cry.
The encounter left him shaken.
“I was a basket case for three days. It took me a week or two to stop thinking about it all the time,” he told the News-Sentinel. “Actually, I thought I might crack up and never be able to play the part again.”
Schmitt-Matzen considered hanging up his red suit but saw some children laughing and playing and then changed his mind.
“It made me realize the role I have to play,” said the part-time Santa, whose Facebook page has been flooded with likes. “For them and for me.”
His is not your traditional feel-good Christmas story. Still, we’re certainly glad it was told.
A few days after the story was published, the News Sentinel added an update saying it is no longer standing by the veracity of the account.
“Since publication, the News Sentinel has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account. This has proven unsuccessful. Although facts about his background have checked out, his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remains unverified. The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate.
“Therefore, because the story does not meet the newspaper’s standards of verification, we are no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account.”