Photo courtesy of Hamilton Spectator Collection, Hamilton Public Library
by Brendan Oliver
“It’s not the things you do at Christmas, it’s the Christmassy things you do year round that count.” — Jimmy Lomax.
One of the greatest and most charitable Hamiltonians of all time was Mr. Jimmy Lomax who grew up in Crown Point’s north end. For more than 50 years Christmas in Hamilton wouldn’t have been the same without Jimmy and his Operation Santa Claus.
James William Lomax was born on August 24, 1943 to parents Clifford and Orma. His parents resided on Bayfield Avenue just north of the Jockey Club. Jimmy attended Lloyd George Elementary School on Beach Road.
For much of his childhood, Jimmy was in and out of hospital suffering from bronchiectasis. In the days before OHIP, Jimmy’s father, a crane operator, worked three part time jobs including one at Stelco to cover his son’s medical bills.
One of the best parts of Jimmy’s childhood was his Christmas visits from Santa Claus played by family friend Curly Alkerton. Those visits made Jimmy vow that if he ever got better he too would one day wear the suit. In later years, Jimmy would say: “Other kids wanted to be firemen, policemen or Steelworkers. But I believed in Santa.”
Doctors gave Jimmy just three years to live, when he was seven, and his parents brought him home to live out the remainder of his life. Jimmy defied his doctors’ prognosis and was given a clean bill of health at the age of 15. It was then that Jimmy started to give back.
With a $5 donation from a gas station owner, Jimmy purchased some leftover Halloween candy and began spreading Christmas cheer. Wearing a Santa suit made by a teacher at Lloyd George Elementary, Jimmy went to area hospitals and nursing homes distributing treats to patients. It was the beginning of Operation Santa Claus.
Jimmy dropped out of Delta Secondary, at 16, and took a job as a steelworker. He remained a steelworker all his life and retired from Stelco after 38 years.
Jimmy always told people that he would never marry unless he found someone who had a heart of gold. He found that person in Susan, a former schoolmate and family friend. The couple were married and soon welcomed a son, Ryan, who was born in December and was named after actor Ryan O’Neil.
Over the span of 51 years, Jimmy and Susan grew Operation Santa Claus into a $200,000 a year operation serving 80,000 needy people in the Hamilton area. To keep the operation going, many fundraisers were held including the annual Beach Strip Garage Sale.
Each Christmas Eve from 10 a.m. to midnight, Jimmy would dress in his custom-made Santa suit and visit nursing homes, hospitals and private residences to spread good cheer to people who wouldn’t otherwise have a Christmas. Jimmy’s appearance while being Santa was very important and he once said, “I can’t stand to see a sloppy Santa.”
Tragically, in May of 1986, son Ryan died of a rare form of lung cancer. Christmas then became a very difficult time, but Jimmy and Susan continued their work knowing that their efforts gave hope to so many.
Jimmy received numerous honours, over the years, including the Ontario Medal for Outstanding Citizenship and the Queen’s Jubilee Medal. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1984 and was once named as Reader’s Digest’s Heroes for today.
One of his most cherished awards was the honorary diploma given to him by Delta Secondary School. The school also created the Jimmy Lomax Community Service Award which is awarded each year to one community-minded student.
In June 2010, Jimmy retired from Operation Santa Claus after being diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year. On October 9, 2011, he passed away at home peacefully in his sleep at the age of 68. Following his death, the flags at city hall were lowered to half-staff in his honour.
In a statement, then Mayor Bob Bratina said, “Jimmy exemplified the best of Hamilton and Hamiltonians… a humble east-ender who found a way to make a difference in people’s lives. We have lost a great man and a great friend.”
Jimmy’s celebration of life was held at Laidlaw Memorial United Church where he went to Sunday school as a child. In attendance were several dignitaries and several professional Santas dressed in their suits. As his urn was brought into the Church “Here Comes Santa Claus” played.
In late October 2011, just a few weeks after his death Jimmy Lomax park opened on the Beach Strip where he and Susan lived for so many years. That same year Operation Santa Claus became part of the CHML/Y108 Children’s Fund and Jimmy was inducted into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.