Santa Claus, portrayed by Bob Rinehart, visits the bedside of 10-year-old Lana Beth Webster at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital in Chattanooga on Dec. 21, 2005. He volunteered to visit the hospital every few days through the Christmas season, including on Christmas Eve, for 10 years before he died.Staff File Photo
After a decade of watching his father don an enormous red velvet suit and fluffy white beard each Christmas, 17-year-old Tyler Rinehart learned a crucial part of playing a good Santa Claus -- sincerity.
"He was so gentle with the kids," Tyler recalled about his dad, who played Santa at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger for 10 years. "He didn't try to fake anything. He was mainly himself."
Two years ago, Bob Rinehart died unexpectedly at age 44. Earlier this month, Tyler stepped into his father's black boots for the hospital's tree-decorating ceremony.
Wearing two puffy jackets for padding, Tyler climbed into the massive Santa suit, hand-sewn by his grandmother to fit his father's 400-pound frame.
Tyler said the experience was healing following the sudden loss of his dad, who died in his sleep, likely from an air embolism.
"I guess it feels like I kind of have a connection with him. (Playing Santa) was real important to him. I guess I feel like I'm kind of following in his footsteps," Tyler said.
Bob's widow, Connie, said her husband first took on a Santa gig at the old Loveman's department store in 1987 because money was tight that Christmas. The experience sparked something in him, she said.
"That's what spurred his love of it," she said. "He always said he liked being around kids more than he liked being around adults."
For the next decade, Rinehart visited children hospitalized at T.C. Thompson throughout December. On Christmas Eve he delivered a gift to each child.
For many years, his own four kids pulled the presents through the hospital hallways by the wagonload.
"He made the perfect Santa," Connie Rinehart said. "He had the big round belly ... and he would do anything to make kids laugh. I think he felt he was making a difference."
For some families, he made a huge difference.
In December 2005, 10-year-old Lana Beth Webster met Bob Rinehart as Santa while she lay in a hospital bed being treated for neuroblastoma, a cancer she'd battled since 2001.
The Websters had not taken Lana Beth to the mall to meet Santa because her immune system was compromised and she risked getting sick, said her mother, Cindy Webster.
But when Santa walked into her hospital room, Lana Beth was "beaming ear to ear," despite having just gone through a round of chemotherapy, Cindy Webster said.
"Kids are just kids, and cancer and chemo doesn't mean anything to them. They just want to see Santa," she said.
The gesture was even more important to the Websters because that year turned out to be their daughter's last Christmas. Lana Beth died in November 2006.
Hospital staff who saw Tyler Rinehart in the familiar Santa suit this month were astonished at how much he resembled his father, both in looks and in Santa style, said Wallis Davies, hospital child life director.
"Bob was an incredible Santa. He never tried to be Santa -- he just was Santa," she said. "He just had this gentle spirit with the kids that was very natural. ... When I saw Tyler for the first time I was almost speechless. He did things the exact same way."
For Tyler's mother, seeing her son's nose and eyes peeking above the white beard, noticing how he cocked his head to the side as he listened to the kids on his lap, was like watching her husband all over again.
"Oh my God, he looked just like his daddy," she recalled.
She noticed Tyler kept looking over at her throughout the day, understanding how much she'd enjoyed seeing her husband as Santa.
"I think he was worried about me," she said. "He had to grow up really fast (after his father died) and he's tried to be my protector sometimes. I think he knew it was a little bittersweet for me."
Tyler, a high school senior who also works at an auto shop in Soddy-Daisy, said he plans to attend Chattanooga State Community College to study diesel mechanics next year. But he'll still be around to continue in the role of Santa next season, he said.
"I'm not going anywhere," he said.
Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...