For a 57-year-old Ovilla man, playing the role of Saint Nick every winter was once his license to be rotund year-round.
It was OK to be obese, “because I was Santa and Santa is supposed to be fat,” said “Santa” Chuck Lee, as he prefers to be known.
But at 5-feet-8-inches tall, 290 pounds and facing a growing list of health problems, Lee had a decision to make. He either needed surgery to address painful gall bladder attacks or he had to make drastic lifestyle changes.
“I decided that I would change the way I eat and what I do,” said Lee, who is also a banjo maker.
Over the past 10 months, Lee lost 50 pounds. His gall bladder troubles are gone, as is the acid reflux.
What’s more, he’s begun sharing his story of healthy living with a network of other Santas that he estimates numbers in the hundreds. He’d like to change perceptions about Santa Claus.
“I like to think of Santa being an agile, nimble, jolly old elf,” he said. “You think of that as being spry and energetic.”
Lee’s story is particularly fitting for the gig he worked this morning. He donned the Santa suit he made himself to play his favorite role at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. That’s where Jane Sadler, MD, a family medicine physician on staff at Baylor Medical Center at Garland, performed a “health screening” to ensure Santa was fit for duty.
Dr. Sadler took his blood pressure and weight, listened to his heart and checked his throat, as local news reporters looked on.
“Your weight loss has made a big difference in your health,” Dr. Sadler said.
Later, Dr. Sadler announced he was “fit for duty.” (See a video of Santa’s physical below)
For Lee, tried and true methods helped him shed the extra pounds. He stopped eating the “bad fats” and most dairy and wheat products and cut back on his sugar intake. He focused more on fruits and vegetables.
Lee also got back into his old martial arts hobby, which at his former weight was harder on his knees.
His decision to get in better shape did not come without some reservations. Lee takes pride in the role he’s been playing for the past four years. As he sewed a new red suit to better fit his shrinking waistline, he worried that his core customers might not accept a slimmer Santa.
“I was kind of nervous going into this season,” said Lee, who has seven children and eight grandchildren.
But so far, he said, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. It even seems his new look may be providing motivation for others.
“I actually have a lot of influence in encouraging Santas to be more healthy and I’m getting a lot of positive feedback from Santas, some that I know and some that I only know through Facebook,” Lee said.
He was thrilled when his agent called last week to offer him the Baylor Dallas assignment.
“I started telling her why I would really like to do that job,” he said.
His self-improvement mission is far from over. Lee said he plans to lose another 50 pounds in the coming months.
And for those who still might be thrown off by his shrinking figure, Lee said he is confident that he’ll retain one key trait.
“I still have a chubby cheeks and I’ve still got that Santa twinkle in my eyes,” Lee said.
[Below photos taken by Karen Campbell]