(Above: Dennis with Herb Caen)
With Christmas fast approaching, my thoughts turn, as they do every Holiday season, to Dennis Cavagnaro.
He was the only person I knew who worked as a free-lance Santa Claus. (His business card read, "Have sleigh, will travel.")
Each December, he'd take his red Santa suit out of the closet and go forth to spread the Christmas spirit. He traveled to his gigs in full costume on public transportation.
"It's hard to drive with that big stomach (actually, a pillow) in the way," he explained.
And he always stayed in character, waving and shouting "Merry Christmas" to everyone he met.
"Once you put on that red suit, you're on," he said. "It doesn't matter whether you're getting paid or not."
In return, he'd get big grins from the adults and adoring smiles from the children. When he rode the cable cars in San Francisco, the gripmen would salute him by playing Christmas carols on their bells.
"Santa gets back a lot more than he gives, believe me," he said.
His love for little kids was boundless. He made a point to learn each one's name beforehand, and he listened patiently until he was sure they were really finished.
But he never said, "Ho, ho, ho!"
"It scares little kids, he explained.
Dennis grew up in Oakland, where one of his childhood playmates was future 49er quarterback John Brodie.
"I probably caught more passes from him than Gene Washington," he'd say.
He was also a batboy for the Oakland Oaks, starring Billy Martin and managed by Casey Stengel.
He was a humble man, but he was very proud of being an Oaklander – just as he was proud of being Italian, a member of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club (Badge #9014), and a Cal grad, Class of 1958. (The class motto: "None so great as '58").
Most of all, he was proud of being a Marine. He spent 20 years in the Corps, retiring in 1979 with the rank of Major. He was a Marine aviator who flew A-4 Skyhawk fighters on more than 100 combat missions.
He was also my best source, hands down. I can't count the number of great stories he turned me on to, including my favorite story of all, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese-American World War II unit that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other unit in American history.
He always had a big smile on his face, which belied a tragedy that haunted him all his adult life. He once had a daughter of his own, an adorable little girl named Lea, but she died when she was only 13 months old.
And that's why I think he was so great with children. He saw a little bit of Lea in every kid he met. By being kind to them, he was being kind to the daughter he never had a chance to watch growing up.
Six years ago Dennis suddenly fell ill and was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors discovered an advanced stage of cancer. He sank rapidly, and within a week he was gone. I never had a chance to say goodbye. Or thanks.
So let me do it now. Semper Fi, Dennis. Go Bears! Oakland rules! And, of course, Buon Natale.