UNOH MBA Grad inspired to take on Santa's mantle

Posted on Tuesday, December 20, 2022


UNOH MBA Graduate Nathan Vandenbroek aka Santa Nathan

Written by: STEVE KORNACKI   The Toledo Blade

Nathan Vandenbroek, then just 6 years old, had no feeling in his body as he lay in the hospital bed. His younger brother by one year, Tony, was killed in the same car crash that caused his injuries. But his mother and younger sister survived that horrible accident on Dec. 3, 1993, near Temperance.

Christmas was approaching, but it was hard for little Nathan to muster the spirit of the season.

“I was in St. Vincent Hospital,” said Mr. Vandenbroek, who now prefers being called Santa Nathan at this time of year. “They had Geoffrey the Giraffe and other people and other things. But I was strapped to a hospital bed, and at the time paralyzed from the neck down. I was having to re-learn how to do everything, and upset that I couldn’t go.

“So the nurses, one of which was my aunt, decided to bring in a Santa Claus. He came in, knew my name, had an amazing Santa suit, a deep, regal voice. He knew my story. He had to be the real Santa.

 “Christmas morning, I got up and stood right out of the wheelchair. I was still incredibly unstable, and after the first of the year, when I got therapy, I was told it’s not possible for me to be walking on my own. And things improved from there.”

Two years later, fully recovered, he received the guitar he wanted for Christmas and that only reinforced his love for and appreciation of Santa.

“Santa knew what I wanted,” he said. “It came at that age [8] when you start questioning your belief in Santa. And it just made that belief so much more real. Santa is real because he paid attention to that one item I wanted.”

Now, Mr. Vandenbroek is the one bringing good cheer to children, while offering them Christmas coins, naughty-or-nice magic, and candy while listening to their gift list for Santa Claus.

Santa Nathan is an accountant in Findlay by day, and brings smiles to kids on nights and weekends. He takes the role so seriously that in September he paid to attend the week-long Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Mich.

“It’s the Harvard of Santa schools,” Santa Nathan said. “We learned history, beard care, suit cleaning, sign language, interacting with reindeer. But, more than anything, I gained the experience of guys who have been playing Santa, some of them for 60 years.”

The school was founded in 1937 by its namesake, who was the Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade between 1948 and 1965, and lived by these words: “He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.”

Santa Nathan said: “To be Santa for the right reason is really what it comes down to. It’s about the love and giving of Christmas.”

He’s a Toledo St. Francis de Sales and University of Toledo graduate with a master’s degree in business from the University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima, and now has added a jolly old elf diploma.

Santa Nathan, 35, and wife Jessica Vandenbroek have three young children: Henrik, 5, Emalyn, 1 ½, and Noelle, who has a great name for Christmas and was born Oct. 16.

“Nathan has such a great joy for Christmas,” Jessica Vandenbroek said. “Christmas has always been a huge part of our relationship. He even proposed to me the day after Christmas [in 2014].

“I think he’s a great Santa because he enjoys all aspects of it. And he’s a great storyteller. He tells stories he makes up that are so believable,” she said with a laugh. “They’re not, but he’s amazing with storytelling, and to be Santa you really have to be a great storyteller. He can come up with stories for kids in a heartbeat.”

She’s considering joining him as a North Pole tandem.

“Friends and family call me ‘Mrs. Claus’ a lot,” she continued, giggling at the thought. “We’re talking about that for the future: Am I joining in on this act? I am so happy that he’s gone down this route because it’s an enjoyment not only for him but our kids. We tell them he’s Santa’s helper because they have not seen him in a suit yet.

“He finds such joy in it, and I can’t wait to see where it takes him.”

Santa Nathan’s eyes light up when discussing “portraying a truly authentic” St. Nick.

“We’d take our kids to the Christmas tree farm,” he said, “and take them to see Santa. I just thought the overall quality of Santas was low. The magic wasn’t there. They might be wearing tennis shoes or jeans with artificial beards. It was a low standard.”

While dabbling in playing Santa for a few years, Santa Nathan decided to go to the school and dive deep into the role this year. One of his instructors was Michael Howe, 62, of Reed City, Mich., a retired school teacher aka Santa Michael.

“It’s been fun watching Nathan make the transformation into being Santa,” he said. “He loves Christmas, and wants to bring magical moments to children.

“What makes him a great Santa? It’s the heart. Nathan has such a heart that wants to bring love, joy, and peace — all of those things we wrap around Christmas.

“I can’t wait to see what is down the line for him. It’s just going to keep building, building, and building for him. He has a wonderful array of tools he’s already mastering. I feel blessed to work with Nate because of his passion and his love for Christmas, and wanting to share that, reminding us what Christmas is all about.”

Santa Nathan’s a member of Buckeye Santas, Ohio Santas, and the Michigan Association of Professional Santas. And in all of his time with men whose bellies shake like bowls full of jelly, he’s never come across one as young as him.

But he pulls it off by beginning the aging process and beard every July. His dark hair turns orange at first after being treated “and then gets a little bit lighter, a little bit lighter” until turning a mix of white and gray by October with additional treatments.

The “clean-shaven accountant” transforms into Santa. It is something like actor Tim Allen’s process in The Santa Clause movies, which just happens to be Santa Nathan’s favorite Christmas flick.

“I can pass for being in my mid-60s,” Santa Nathan said. “The 80- and 90-year-old women like to hit on me,” he continued with a laugh. “But it’s all for the love of the kids and doing this for the reason why — to create magic memories for children and Christmas magic.”

He works out and runs regularly, checking in at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds. You see, Santa Nathan was a fitness trainer before becoming an accountant. And he went at that with the same fervor he’s taken on being Santa.

“I went from 315 pounds down to 160 and became a personal fitness trainer,” he said. “And I’m still fitter than most Santas. I get called ‘Skinny Santa.’ ”

And he has an insatiable appetite to be the best Santa possible:

He learned magic to help show kids whether they’re on the naughty-or-nice list.

He learned calligraphy to answer correspondence with children with authenticity.

He made a 12-foot-long “expanding candy cane” out of PVC pipe “with red and white duct tape” to pull out of his gift bag.

He built a mailbox for kids to drop lists and letters into.

He “listens to Christmas music 12 months a year” and his favorite song is Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

He carries a gold key on his belt “for houses without chimneys” that only works every year on Dec. 25.

Looking the part of Santa is one thing. Being Santa in your heart is another. And while not to discount his spot-on visual portrayal of this purveyor of Christmas, his heart and enthusiasm for the role are what sets Santa Nathan apart.

“The reason I got into this is because Santa is magic,” he said. “When adults see Santa, they become kids again. So, it’s about being authentic. And when I sit down with families and kids, I have answers for everything.

“It’s really about who you are and where your heart’s at.”

He’ll roll on the ground and play with kids, and is both entertaining and captivating.

Kids inevitably ask: “Are you the real Santa?”

Santa Nathan replies: “I’m the spirit of joy and giving. But it’s up to you to decide if I’m the real Santa. Am I Santa? Yes. But am I the real Santa? That’s up to you to figure out.”

For him, the real Santa will always be that one at St. Vincent when he was 6.

He’s tried for years to find out who that Santa was, but hasn’t found him and now fears “he’s probably passed away.” But when he began having children, Santa Nathan decided to attempt bringing that same kind of joy to other children that his special Santa brought him in that hospital bed:

“For me, becoming Santa was: ‘How can I emulate that feeling I had when I was young?’ No one’s ever going to match that Santa. I can’t match him. He was just too magical.

“So, being Santa is because of my life experience. This has been a blessing — a dream come true. I’m excited to see what next year holds.”

Contact Steve Kornacki at or on Twitter @SKORNACKI

Category: Campus & Community

Keywords: MBA Graduate, Santa Claus

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Last updated: 12/20/2022