Santa can’t be everywhere at once. Lucky for Winona, Rocky Rohn steps in every holiday season, bringing cheer to both local children and families in need.
by BEN MCLEOD
Many superheroes have secret identities. If everyone knew you could fly, they’d be asking for help running errands all the time. Winona’s Santa has a costume and a secret identity, but he’s always ready to aid those in need of help. Winonan Rocky Rohn spends much of the year disguised as a mild-mannered employee in the Winona State University General Maintenance Department. But when the days grow shorter and children’s thoughts turn to the man in the red suit who flies through the air, Rohn transforms himself to assist Santa Claus, beloved by children, and dedicated to assisting families in the region who’ve been burdened by tragedy.
Rohn’s origin story began on September 11, 2001. Struck by a sense of helplessness felt by many in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, Rohn decided not to sit around and wait for someone else to tend to the hearts of those overwhelmed by sorrow or loss. Rohn, already sporting a beard, decided to adopt the alter ego of Kris Kringle, and use his powers not only to entertain children during the holiday season, but to take that opportunity to raise money for families who are struggling under the mountains of unexpected medical debt that accompany unexpected health problems or personal tragedy.
Cathy Jonsgaard becomes emotional as soon as the subject of Rohn comes up in conversation. Cathy’s husband Dan Jonsgaard was seriously injured while driving truck on I-90, an accident which put him into a coma, relying on life support. “Even before my husband’s accident, we’d hire [Rocky] to come to my father-in-law’s, because that’s where we’d gather on Christmas Eve,” Cathy said. “He made everyone feel welcome, like they had a place. The first time he played Santa, he had everybody sit on his lap, even the older [people]. My older sisters grew up with him, so I knew who he was. We would call him every year since the kids were young. After the accident I called him, because I wanted to keep things as normal as possible. I contacted him, and once he did his Santa, he pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to give you the money [I earn this season].’ It’s been phenomenal. To me, that’s just a part of who he is.”
Wayne Valentine, former country commissioner and local radio and TV news director, has known Rohn for many years, and considers him a friend. “Several years ago now, when our 16-year-old grandson was much younger, we hired [Rohn] to play Santa, and he was a big hit. Rocky did follow up the visit with a letter from Santa, which was inspiring for our grandson.” Rohn has decided that this year, he will be donating all the proceeds from his “Santa for Hire” appearances to Wayne’s niece Kathy Valentine-Ruhoff, of Lewiston. Kathy visited Ireland in June this year, where she contracted pneumococcal pneumonia, which caused her to go into septic shock. After three weeks in a medically-induced coma, she was awoken and spent nearly a month in the ICU. After additional months in a number of different hospitals in Ireland, she was discharged and returned home to the U.S., where she continues to be treated for lung damage, memory loss and neuropathy. She must undergo physical therapy three times a week, and she and her husband Kevin are now burdened by tremendous medical bills, the majority of which are not covered by insurance. Rohn read a letter in the Winona Post, where Wayne announced a fundraiser at the Black Horse Tavern, and decided that this year, Santa would dedicate his season’s entire income to Kathy and Kevin. “He came to my wife and I,” said Wayne, “and said, ‘I’d like to do this Santa for Hire.’ As you can understand, we readily accepted the offer. I’ve known him over the years, [and] I’ve always appreciated what he’s done. He’s always been very friendly, just a nice guy. He really has a passion for helping people in need.”
Valentine was head of the local Ducks Unlimited, and would chat with Rohn at the club’s benefits, or they would see each other at the Minnesota City Boat Club. “He actually came to our house; he knows my wife and I were working on this benefit. Some years he raises $250, $2,500 other years.” For any family being smothered by the twin shocks of tragedy and insurmountable medical debt, $2,500, $250, or even $25 can mean the difference between food and electricity, or poverty.
Santa Claus is always jolly, but sometimes Rohn is not. “I don’t do this for publicity, [I started Santa for Hire] from my own tragedies. Most people have tragedies,” he explained. But Rohn does not want to talk about those. He will talk about the losses of those close to him — a cousin who lost his young son on Christmas night, 14 years ago, still affects him deeply. He related a story about meeting a couple in late September this year, visiting Winona from Texas, where they had lost everything in one of the summer’s severe hurricanes. Rohn noticed them struggling with luggage as he was driving past, and pulled over and offered his assistance. After dropping them at the bus station, he even returned home to get a box of dog biscuits for their pug. (“I have a yellow lab, Ticker; I asked her if it was OK and she said, ‘Yeah.’”) The couple said they had heard about “Minnesota nice” and told Rohn, “We will have a lifelong memory of you.” The couple was on their way to Las Vegas, where two days later a shooter left 58 dead and hundreds wounded. “I wonder if they’re OK,” Rohn said. “These amazing strangers who you would never meet, these things that happen, they could happen to anybody.”
Rohn is a working guy; he doesn’t have enough money to help all the people he wants to help. Like many Americans, he has a full-time job, yet sometimes still finds himself on the lean side of the ledger. But it’s difficult for him to spend too much time on himself. He is always trying to come up with new ways to help others. “When I start work at four a.m., a guy does a lot of thinking in the basement of a building alone. How can I raise money to help others?”
He recently acquired an Easter Bunny suit. “I’ve never played the Easter Bunny. My ears are pretty big the way it is,” he joked. But he is quick to point out that he is still making dates for Santa. “No days off,” he insists: early afternoons on weekdays, entire weekend days — always after a full work shift. But when those who’ve hired Santa try to slip him something for himself, for gas or time, he never accepts it. “I’m amazed how people in this town care about people they don’t even know. Every penny goes to the people. But if someone offers a plate of cookies, well, I’ve got to keep the belly going.”
Anyone interested in contacting Santa for Hire can reach Rohn at 507-454-5874.