One man’s benevolent spirit comes full circle
For Dean Higginbotham, getting through security and to his office at the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office means carrying two different identification badges. Why two? Well, it depends on who Dean is that day.
Usually, he’s the program director for the Victims’ Assistance Unit, a unit dedicated to helping families in Williamson County who’ve suddenly lost loved ones. But on occasion, he dons a custom-made, red corduroy suit that goes nicely with his genuine white beard and rosy cheeks. Those days, he uses his other badge labeled simply “Santa.”
For the past 12 years, Dean’s been spreading joy and the Christmas spirit throughout the county. But how does a man who spends his days amidst the sorrow of others truly embody jolly ol’ Saint Nicholas?
He’s learned how to navigate through tragedy.
A Season of Loss
Childhood should be filled with a cache of wonderful memories—especially around Christmas. Growing up in Nolanville, Texas, about 10 miles west of Belton, Dean made some wonderful memories of family Christmases.
When Dean was about five years old, his entire family gathered at his grandparents’ house for Christmas. Cousins piled on top of each other in willy-nilly sleeping arrangements. The night before Christmas, Dean and his cousins heard noises on the roof—footsteps and what sounded like antlers scraping against each other. Dean later found out that his older cousins had climbed up on the roof with deer antlers to give the younger ones a hint of Santa’s arrival.
Dean also got a hint of Santa when an uncle who owned a cookie and candy company visited. “Around the holidays, Uncle Ben would visit and bring lots of candy and stuff. He was portly and drove a little red car,” Dean remembers. “He was kind of like Santa Claus.”
Uncle Ben made that special trip during Christmas for a reason. Dean lost his father at Easter when he was five years old. A few short years later, he also lost his grandfather and an uncle. The trauma of losing so many male role models left Dean with a gaping hole in his life. To help him cope with the losses and to distract him, Dean’s mom tried to focus his attention on positive things.
Like visiting Santa at the mall: “Distractions can be good things. I think the reason they took me to see Santa was that they thought it would be a great distraction and also to get the Christmas picture. I’m not sure I sat long enough for the picture.”
Maybe Dean didn’t take a great picture that year, but he took away something deeper from that Santa visit and others that followed—the idea that giving children a moment of comfort and joy can sustain them through difficult times.
A Season of Giving
Those comforting moments, coupled with a steadfast support system, helped Dean successfully navigate adolescence and shape a healthy perspective on how to approach hard times in life. “If we respond to certain events in life positively rather than negatively, we can go through sad or difficult times with a content, happy, and positive attitude,” Dean explains. “If you get in a negative attitude, you’ll stay there. Negativity reproduces faster than happiness.”
Dean’s positive outlook helped him have success in life. He married Glenda, the love of his life, and raised three beautiful children. He’s worked in many different fields: youth pastoring, dry cleaning, hazardous waste management, juvenile detention, and Victims’ Assistance.
In 2004, Dean found a role tailor-made for him. “People kept telling me I looked like Santa because I had a beard and a belly,” he recalls. “Some would say that when I laughed, my belly would shake like a bowl of jelly.”
Dean started working with Williamson County’s Brown Santa Program, which helps provide gifts for families struggling to put presents under the Christmas tree. In conjunction with this work, Dean has marshalled the Teddy Bear Parade. Each December, children from Liberty Hill come with teddy bears to parade around and through the old courthouse before donating the bears to the Sheriff’s Office. Santa Dean also makes appearances at nursing homes, private visits on Christmas Eve, and the Round Rock Express’ Christmas in July.
Over the years, Dean has sought to emulate not only the iconic early Coca-Cola Santa, with his joyous exuberance and bright red cheeks, but also the original Saint Nicholas. “I really like what I’ve learned about Saint Nicholas,” he says. “He was a benevolent saint, known for his generosity and for helping people.”
Being Santa has also helped Dean cope with his work. Glenda saw it, too. Even though it meant being gone during some of the Christmas season—her birthday was on Christmas Eve—Glenda encouraged him to don the red suit.
“There’s a lot of stressors working with juvenile detention and Victims’ Assistance because we’re dealing with people’s lives—sometimes life and death situations. Glenda knew I needed to relax, and being Santa helps me relax,” Dean recalls.
A Season of Hope
This year, being Santa is going to look a little different. Dean’s suit is ready to go, his engagements are all set, but something’s missing—Glenda.
This past May, Glenda fought her final battle with cancer. Before she passed away, she and Dean talked about their kids, the future, and what she wanted Dean to do. “Instead of the Christmas list, we made the Carry-on list,” Dean explains.
One item on the list was Santa Claus. Glenda wanted Dean to continue doing what he does best: helping people. “Glenda said, ‘When you come back from portraying Santa, you’re different. You’re kinder, gentler, and more compassionate.’”
She knew that Santa is more than just a character Dean puts on. It’s a way for him to channel hope and joy into people’s lives—including his own. By focusing on others, and with the support of loved ones, Dean is healing. “It’s not the end of the world. The sun comes up every morning and goes down every night,” he says. “Opportunities are there to help people.”
Those opportunities don’t have to come as a man dressed in a red suit with his official “Santa” ID badge. Benevolence can take any form and can come from anybody.
“I believe the spirit of Christmas shouldn’t be just one day a year—it should be every day. There are more than ample opportunities to help people daily,” he reminds people. “Is Santa wearing a red suit, or is Santa a guy in a police uniform protecting you? Who is your Santa Claus?”