Playing Santa for the dogs
By Denise Baran-Unland Correspondent December 10, 2012 11:36AM
COPE Animal Rescue "Santa Claus" and United States Army veteran Michael Johnson wearing the East German Army surplus jack boots he bought 20 years ago.
If you go …
What: Pet pictures with Santa
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Petsmart, 2775
Plainfield Road, Joliet
Contact: COPE at 815-773-4340 or visit www.coperescue.org.
What: COPE bake sale
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Petco at Route 59 and Black Road, Shorewood
Etc: Bakers needed. Volunteers will pick up baked goods, if necessary
Contact: Lois 815-474-5204 or Joe 815-474-9565.
Updated: January 12, 2013 6:06AM
Just as children do, pets experience the annual photos with Santa Claus in different ways.
Some sit nicely and others, especially large dogs, prefer to pose near Santa’s chair. If a certain dog still won’t cooperate, one particular jolly ol’ red-suited man will happily sit on the floor beside him. Occasionally, an owner or child will sneak into the picture.
Other dogs, although outwardly cooperating, quake and shake during the entire session. Fortunately, Michael Johnson, 55, of Joliet, who plays Santa for Joliet’s COPE (Cat Overpopulation Planned Endeavor) Animal Rescue, has never yet had a pet snap, attack or bite in his direction.
“I get peed on every year,” Johnson said, “but you’ve got to expect that.”
Finding someone willing to play Santa season after season can sometimes be challenging, especially during the holidays when Santa lookalikes are in short supply. However, to Johnson, now a three-year veteran of the role, aiding COPE is just one more service he performs for his community.
Each Friday at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Johnson, a U.S. Army veteran, participates in the cemetery’s memorial squad. As a former employee for the state of Illinois (Johnson retired as a correctional counselor in 2007), Johnson often conducts tours on the grounds of the former Joliet Correctional Center in Joliet.
A history buff, Johnson was instrumental in obtaining a headstone donation for Cpl. William Roberts, a British soldier who had carried orders during the Charge of the Light Brigade, who is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Joliet. Johnson also volunteers at the Joliet Area Historical Museum.
“Whenever the museum has special events, I’ll help set it up and then do whatever else is needed,” Johnson said. “I’ll keep the bar stocked, get ice and take out the garbage.”
Johnson also plays trivia games for charity and cares for his 89-year-old mother, Marilyn Johnson of Joliet, by organizing her medication and playing chauffeur for errands and doctor appointments. Nevertheless, Johnson shrugs off his dedication to “giving back” as being anything exceptional.
“I’m able to do it, so I do,” Johnson said. “It makes me feel good to help out.”
He first became involved with COPE several years ago, when a friend asked him to assist at a fundraising poker run. Soon afterward Johnson, who had once played Santa years ago for his nephew’s school holiday party, agreed to “help out” with pet photos, too.
Johnson sees mostly dogs during those shoots and a few cats, a switch for Johnson, who loves dogs but owns three cats. Orange, 12, the only tom and a former stray, wandered to the Casa de Miguelito (Johnson’s name for his house) at mealtimes. Stumpy, 12, has lived with Johnson for 11 years, after her previous owners gave her up. Finnegan, 8, showed up on Johnson’s porch when she was just 6 weeks old.
“Someone that knew I had cats must have dumped her,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how a cat that small could have made it to my house.”
Johnson’s first move after he retired was signing up for duty at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. Serving was so important to Johnson, who enlisted when he was 17 years old. Following graduation from the former Joliet Catholic High School, Johnson was off to boot camp. He remained in the Army for two years (19 months in Germany) as a tank crewman in the 3rd Armor Division.
“Only 7 percent of the country’s population is a veteran,” Johnson said. “These men and women have served our country and that is not something everyone has done. I think final hours are nice to have and I’m honored to do it.”
COPE also feels honored to have Johnson among its ranks. It’s especially difficult to find someone willing to play Santa for pet photos two days in a row, said COPE vice president Joe Bertoglio, who would often slip into those heavy boots when Santas were none to be had.
However, with two COPE events on the same weekend in different locations, it’s nearly impossible, Bertoglio said, to simultaneously supervise them and pose with the animals. Besides, he added, Johnson does a super job, whether he’s perching a cooperative puppy on his lap or sprawling on the floor with three large dogs.
“He literally rolls with it,” Bertoglio said with a chuckle. “He’s really good with the animals and you can tell he loves doing it. He doesn’t take a break all day.”