Mike Goree puts his pants on one leg at a time, much to the delight of the students watching from their seats in McCool Hall.

He secures his cheery, red trousers with suspenders over a matching T-shirt that conceals a “belly booster,” which at the beginning of class marked the first step in his transformation. He’s on his way from mild-mannered instructor to Santa Claus—or rather, the head elf’s representative in Mississippi.

As he slips on the iconic coat with white fur trim, he assures everyone that he’s still Mike.

He shows the class a flimsy strip of black oilcloth that is marketed as a Santa belt and sleeves of the same material sold as “boot toppers” to disguise black sneakers as winter-ready footwear.

“Look how flimsy,” he says, dismissively waving the belt. “And these boot toppers wouldn’t fool a kid for a second.”

He drops them into a box that already holds a discarded white wig and stringy fake beard. Instead, he dons a wide leather belt and black rubber boots. But still, he says as he plugs in a curling iron, he’s just Mike.

Some students chuckle at the sight of their instructor styling his snowy white beard with the heated wand, but the change is undeniable as his facial hair takes on a look that’s less wizened academic and more kindly grandfather.

“Attention to detail,” he says, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses and straightening his hat, “can’t be overstated.”

And yet, he’s still Mike. He explains that for him the change happens when he slips on his stark-white gloves—the final accessory to complete his look.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” he booms with his hands placed gently on his belly.

A student in the back whispers, “Now I know why the class before us said to be ready to take a picture.”

 

   

Goree admits no matter how dedicated one is to providing the best service possible, no one can make everyone happy all of the time.

   

 

It’s the last day of classes for the semester, and whether it’s spring, summer or fall that means it’s the day Goree demonstrates for his service-marketing students why he is uniquely qualified to teach the course. For the past 30 years, he has been a popular Santa-for-hire, with business cards that boast “Real beard. Real twinkle. Real good,” and proclaim him to be Santa’s Best Friend.

What started as one or two gigs a year in the mid-1980s—when he still had to turn his black beard white using baby powder secured with hairspray—has grown until he now spends more than 80 hours in character at parades, parties and photo shoots between Nov. 1 and Dec. 26 each year. He’s even been hired for a wedding reception and summer Santa events, during which he sports red Bermuda shorts and a Santa-themed T-shirt.

“I warn them at those summer events that snowflakes aren’t the only bright, white things at the North Pole,” Goree says, jokingly, in reference to his legs.

A naturally jovial person, bits of Goree’s Santa persona come through even in regular conversation. However, he’s always able to fully switch into his alter ego whenever the situation calls for it.

“Kids get this look in their eyes when they see me around town,” Goree explained. “They’ll tug on their parents and stare or point. I’ll stop and say, ‘You recognize me, don’t you? Have you thought about Christmas yet?’

“Generally, they’ll giggle and nod. I can get some long wish lists standing in the grocery store in the summer. And sometimes the kids, and even some adults, just want to pull my beard.”

Those interactions and his ability to always be “on” illustrate the key principles of service marketing Goree tries to instill in his students.

“When you sell a service, first and foremost you’re selling an intangible, so one of the first things you need to do is tangibilize the intangible,” Goree explained.



For many service providers, that means putting a face on a feeling: the comfort of a doctor’s care, the relaxation from a massage, the reassurance of a security system or even the excitement of meeting Santa.

“I would think just who I am shows the importance of always demonstrating the service you provide,” Goree explained. “You can’t sell what you don’t believe in. I firmly believe in Santa and I take playing the part very seriously.”

Goree said he’s so serious about his role because of the important place Santa holds in the hearts and minds of children.

“There’s only a small window of time during which kids believe in the magic of Santa,” Goree said. “When I see them during that time, there’s absolute awe and wonder in their expressions, and you can tell you’re making a dream come true.”

Still, Goree admits no matter how dedicated one is to providing the best service possible, no one can make everyone happy all of the time. The proof he shows his students: a photo of siblings—one on each of his knees during a performance—a girl grinning from ear to ear while her brother, red-faced and wailing, looks like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world.

But whether the kids are smiling, crying, grousing about gifts not received, bargaining for a place on the nice list or emitting something unfortunate from a bodily orifice, Goree takes it all in stride and never breaks character.

“The business of business is not business. The business of business is people,” he explains to the class. “It’s how you conduct yourself and treat people that’s key.”

TO BELIEVE OR NOT TO BELIEVE

There inevitably comes a time in childhood when the question becomes, “Is there really a Santa Claus?” It can be a tough question to answer and while he doesn’t have a precise answer, Goree said he does think it’s important to keep at least the spirit of the jolly old elf alive.

“We live in a world that’s lost its sense of magic,” Goree explained. “One of the things the Santa story does is give us permission, even as adults, to get back in touch with a childlike sense of innocence and fun.

“Whether there is a corporeal being or not, there’s a spirit that surrounds Santa that is available regardless of creed or culture. And if that spirit can make people be kinder to and care more for one another, even for a little while, maybe we’d be better off with a little magic in the world.”


By Susan Lassetter, Photos by Beth Wynn