By Mitch Albom
He is a most unlikely Santa Claus.
At 19, he was drafted and shipped to Vietnam. Things happened. He came home changed. His mind paid a price. His body paid one, too.
"I kind of went into a shell," says Bill Doebler, 61, sitting at a table in Clinton Township. "We weren't received very well when we got back. I got punched, slapped, had my hair pulled."
He found work detailing cars. Then a job at the Stroh's factory. Then running a carpet warehouse, something he did for decades.
A few years ago, his wife fell ill and could not work. Money got tight. They lost their house to foreclosure.
Then Bill got sick - nerve problems, eye problems, diabetes - things he had been suffering for a long time without realizing they were tied to Agent Orange, the poisonous herbicide used during the war.
He went two years paying out of pocket before someone told him he qualified for veterans benefits.
Then he got laid off.
These are not things that make you jolly.
Suited for Santa
But somewhere along the way, Bill's hair turned pretty white. He grew a beard. And as a way of coping with his problems, he did what some people wisely do - he reminded himself that others have it worse, and he volunteered to ring the bell for the Salvation Army.
"Around Christmas, I started wearing a Santa hat, and kids would come up and hug me and say, 'Oh, Santa! Santa!'"
"My wife said I should go to Santa school."
And so he did - the one up in Midland. He took instruction and listened to experts. He learned how Santas should behave, what they should and shouldn't tell kids.
He even got a diploma.
He also got the suit, the belt, the boots. And finally, he and his wife, Diana Doebler - who played Mrs. Claus - went, in character, to a local crafts show. Everybody loved them. They did a luncheon the next day with children.
"I always had good Christmases as a kid," says Bill, who is compact, with the proper belly for his new role. "I got lots of presents.
"But now here I was talking to kids who had nothing. I asked this one boy what he wanted, And he said, 'Whatever you bring me, Santa.'"
His eyes start to moisten.
"Sorry," he says, wiping a tear. "I didn't want the kid to see me crying, either."
A gift of his own
It's funny. We usually think of Santa Claus as the one bringing cheer to others. But for Bill - who can't see well anymore and has little feeling in his hands - the suit is the salvation.
"I've always been a kind of an introvert," he said. "But this brought me out. I feel connected to people. And there is something about ringing that bell. The first year I did it, when the season was over, I got in my car and cried for 10 minutes. I didn't want it to stop."
Bill Doebler served his country once - his mind and body still pay the price - and now, in a red and white way, he's serving it again. He appeared at a Detroit shelter party for women and children last week. He's doing a senior home next week. He says he's thinking of going to a voice coach, "to work on my ho-ho-hos."
He doesn't want money. He doesn't want attention. He just wants to feel the magic - and give it in return.
"Believe it or not, I still sometimes sit on Santas' laps when I see them at places," he says.
And what do you ask for?
May it come true for him - and you - this holiday season.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch "Monday Sports Albom" 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/mitch.