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Neck injury sidelines one of Santa’s local helpers

  • Sunderland resident Ken Kushi walks down the steps outside his River Road home, Dec. 7, 2017. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • For the first time in close to 50 years, Sunderland resident Ken Kushi will not dress as Santa Claus during the holidays this year. Kushi injured his neck in an October car accident, and is on bed rest for the next few months. Pictured here, he sits in the kitchen of his River Road home, Dec. 7, 2017. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • For the first time in more than 50 years, Sunderland resident Ken Kushi will not dress as Santa Claus during the holidays this year. Kushi injured his neck in an October car accident, and is on bed rest for the next few months. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Sunderland resident Ken Kushi dressed as Santa Claus, Dec. 7, 2017. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Sunderland resident Ken Kushi, Dec. 7, 2017. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • For the first time in more than 50 years, Sunderland resident Ken Kushi will not dress as Santa Claus during the holidays this year. Kushi injured his neck in an October car accident, and is on bed rest for the next few months. Pictured here, he holds a custom made belt in his River Road home, Dec. 7, 2017. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo



Recorder Staff
Friday, December 15, 2017

SUNDERLAND — For close to 50 years, Kenneth Kushi, 71, has donned the classic red suit and brought life to the beloved children’s Christmas character, Kris Kringle. But this year, he’ll spend December reclined in a lounge chair wearing a neck brace.

On Oct. 15, while driving home from Hadley on Route 47, a car rolled through a stop sign at Russell Street, and Kushi couldn’t stop in time.

“I tried to wheel my truck over to the left — we made contact — totaled my brand new truck. And I ended up with a broken neck,” Kushi said while sitting in the kitchen of his River Road home.

Beside him, his wife of 47 years, Carol Kushi, paged through a thick binder filled with photographs of Kushi as Santa Claus.

“My recliner is my total existence, now,” Kenneth Kushi said. In the weeks following the crash, Kushi, who was hired for holiday events, had to cancel everything during the Christmas season. Under doctor’s orders through January, he must wear a neck brace and refrain from moving too much.

“It killed me because I couldn’t do my usual. And I look forward to it,” Kushi said. “I don’t know how to put it into words. I found my niche.”

In all respects, Kushi embraces Santa. With a long white beard and broad smile, he looks the part, too.

But it wasn’t always like that. At first, Kushi begrudgingly took on the role when a man who was supposed to play Santa at Sunderland Congregational Church unexpectedly passed away.

Through a recommendation from his wife, Kushi agreed to do it, once, and “never again after that.”

But “I just fell in love with it. The smiles, and joy. I feed off that. It makes my Christmas,” Kushi said, a nostalgic look coming into his eyes. Many years later, Kushi said he penned a letter to his wife on their anniversary, thankful for the push. “What I am today, I am because of you,” he wrote.

Since then, and over the decades, Kushi has brought Santa to the region without missing a year. Kushi worked at the Hampshire Mall for more than 10 years, and Yankee Candle for another 16, before retiring from the Deerfield candle store in 2014.

“It just snowballed. People saw me at the church, and asked me to come to their houses and give out gifts,” Kushi said.

Kushi as Santa Claus

On the exterior, Kushi is gruff, and a little bit rough around the edges.

He served in the Army during the Vietnam War, and spent 30 years repairing buildings at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Outside his front door, hanging beside a “Santa” sign and a stone bust of St. Nick, is another sign that reads “I carry a gun because a police officer is too heavy.”

A carpenter by trade, Kushi has two daughters. Throughout the year, he volunteers teaching hunting safety classes. In his free time, he works on personal carpentry projects, such as a replica cannon that shoots potatoes, in a basement workshop. Offhand, he’s funny, and quick to crack a joke. Seated in the kitchen, he laughingly describes the Santa suit as “hotter than Hades,” the red jacket “like a rug.”

Ten months of the year, he’s a retired carpenter.

But flip a switch — especially around the holidays — and suddenly he’s laughing a deep belly laugh with squinty, twinkling eyes.

When it comes to Santa Claus, he’s all in.

As a younger man, Kushi bleached and dyed his dark hair (including eyebrows) completely white. His suit is custom made, capped with a gold-plated belt buckle and boots shipped from Texas.

“One minute I’m Ken. Just plain old Ken. And the minute a child is there, I’m Santa,” Kushi said.

Heartwarming stories

At restaurants, in stores, anywhere, Kushi is often approached for photographs and well wishes. Once, a little girl called the house asking for Santa Claus, but Kushi wasn’t there.

“I said, ‘oh, he’s not here right now. He’s feeding the reindeer,’” said Carol Kushi. Soon after, the girl’s mother overheard Kenneth Kushi telling a co-worker about the phone call.

After collaborating with the mother for inside information — about a time the little girl’s sister accidently burned her while making crafts — Santa called the little girl back. He told the girl her sister didn’t mean to hurt her, a thought that was well received.

“She wanted a blue bike, which she got,” Kushi said.

Kushi has many other heartwarming stories. Another time, while working at Yankee Candle, a young girl, whom her mother said had autism and never interacted with strangers, ran up and gave him a huge hug.

Because of those experiences, Kushi believes in the Santa Claus character, which “bestows onto people joy and hope for the future. That things continue on with the same feeling everyone has at Christmastime. More forgiveness, and leniency to overlook little infractions against each other,” Kushi said, adding, “and hope that people will change.”

Taking a year off

Kushi can’t be Santa Claus this year, which will be a challenge. The accident “has really affected me,” he said, “but I wouldn’t say it has broken my spirit.”

Sitting beside him, his wife disagreed. “It has,” Carol Kushi said. “You don’t feel like it’s Christmas.”

Despite the setback, there is a silver lining. The time off will give Kenneth Kushi a chance to rethink his business plan. For example, he’d like to build an 1800s toy shop set and record on video personalized Santa messages for children around the world. And when he does return, he wants to exclusively work freelance at company and family gatherings.

This Christmas, Kushi plans to quietly enjoy the season with family. But even though he won’t be dressed up, he’ll still be Santa “in spirit.” And looking ahead to next year, Kushi intends to once again become Santa Claus.

“I can’t wait. I miss it so much,” Kushi said.

You can reach Andy Castillo

at: acastillo@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 263

On Twitter: @AndyCCastillo