I believe in Santa Claus! In fact I once saw him. Really. Or maybe I should say I spent an entire evening with him.
I met George Bickerton on a cold and snowy Christmas Eve, 1987. I was assigned to photograph George for a newspaper holiday feature story, and I viewed the job as an interesting photo op -- but one keeping me away from my wife and children during the better part of Christmas Eve.
Knocking on the door, I was met by a thin, small man, sweater clad and slightly stooped, with a shock of white hair shooting out from under a Santa's hat. Cane in hand and smiling against the cold night, George greeted me warmly and made me feel welcome.
I was to accompany George and his nephew, Tom Zucco, as they delivered gifts to severely disabled and handicapped children around the South Hills. I was immediately mesmerized by them and knew after the first stop that I was witnessing something special.
We often forget, or choose to ignore, the tenet fundamental to the Christmas season that it is more blessed to give than to receive. But there are people who exemplify the very best of the Christmas spirit and all that the holidays should be.
George had great difficulty getting around, especially with a cane and in the snow. But he wasn't about to let his physical limitations prevent his appointed rounds -- he had important business to do.
Nephew Tom -- a middle-aged, bald, bear of a man who had been helping George for several years -- was again recruited to play Santa and pass out the many donated gifts, while George played elf.
They were visiting our invisible children -- severely handicapped, mentally and physically disabled, kept away from our sensitive eyes, out of sight and out of mind.
George saw them, though, and he loved them. And they believed.
There was Elizabeth, the sweetest little wisp of a girl with the most horrid burn scars contorting her once beautiful face.
And Jason, a young, severely handicapped boy who gave the command performance of a lifetime when he took his first steps ever -- just for George.
I'll never forget Virginia, bedridden and mute, with arms and legs twisted, shriveled and useless -- and eyes as big as saucers that lit up like the Christmas star when she saw George and Tom.
In house after house I witnessed a Christmas like nothing I could imagine. George's inexhaustible love and devotion, along with Tom's gentle touch, loving embrace and occasional tears, burned deep into my soul. And they made me believe.
This is a wondrous world. If we take the time to look, there are extraordinary acts of kindness, with the power to lift us -- if even for a brief time -- far above the angst-driven brutality and inhumanity that we so often bear witness to.
I often think about George and that special Christmas Eve. I always planned on going back to see him but never seemed to find the time. He died over the 1990 Labor Day weekend. After years of battling the post-polio syndrome that left him bent and in pain, he finally met his match and succumbed to cancer.
Some chase fame and others fortune, but only a few very special people leave anything truly special behind -- George left a legacy.
One man's life can make a difference. To paraphrase Clarence, the angel talking to another George in "It's a Wonderful Life," there's a terrible hole left when someone is gone. George Bickerton's passing has left such a hole. In the 23 years since George's death, no one to my knowledge has taken his place.
His nephew Tom has been unable to put in the time and effort needed to coordinate the endeavor, and so the children are again largely forgotten. While George is no longer here, his presence still reverberates in the hearts and minds of all those who knew him.
Twenty-six years after that eye-opening Christmas Eve, I remain thankful for a truly wonderful gift. It made me strive to be just a bit kinder, a little more loving, a little more tolerant and, hopefully, just a little bit better.
Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. I know -- because I spent one very special evening with him.
Alex Bellotti Jr. of Harrisburg, a photographer for the state of Pennsylvania, can be reached at email@example.com.