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The spirit of Santa: Canterbury neighborhood recalls man who donned a red suit

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By Matt Gunn

This time of year, Conrad Paquette’s neighbors remember him as Santa Claus.

But the Canterbury residents also recall the time 15 years ago when “Conny” came to their aid, raising money to provide new playground equipment in Chaucer Park.

Conrad Paquette died in 2001, but his spirit lives on in the Canterbury neighborhood, particular during the holidays.

“It’s amazing how one life can affect an entire community,” said Barb Little, a former member of the Canterbury homeowners association.

Paquette’s family and neighbors dedicated a small portion of Chaucer Park to him Sunday in a short ceremony before the neighborhood’s annual holiday hayride.

“He loved the community and the park and the kids,” said Denise McGuire, one of Conrad Paquette’s daughters. “I’m really proud of him.”

From the time he settled in Canterbury in 1987, Conrad Paquette became the neighborhood’s Santa, visiting children and appearing at holiday events whenever called upon.

He made a point to know each youngster’s name prior to making his visit.

“I still have the lists, actually, in the box for his Santa suit,” McGuire said. “He was really organized.”

McGuire, a teacher in Jeffco Public Schools, still lives in the neighborhood. The suit that Canturbury’s current Santa uses was her father’s.

Conrad Paquette’s influence left a lasting effect during holidays in his neighborhood.

“I think he just started playing Santa for the kids in the cul-de-sac,” said Susan Paquette, another of Conrad’s daughters.

When other neighbors heard Santa lived among them, they sought his services. And, happily, Conrad Paquette would visit each house, making that holidays that much brighter for the neighborhood children.

As the neighborhood’s playground aged, Paquette began charging for appearances, donating all proceeds toward new equipment.

“It was just the spirit of Santa,” Susan Paquette said, “the spirit of giving.”

The annual hayride was another part of life in Canterbury that Paquette cherished. Regardless of the cold, Conrad Paquette was there, happy to bring Santa Claus to the neighborhood festivities.

The tradition of Santa and the holiday hayride lives on in Canterbury, and the neighborhood still uses his Santa suit.

And this year, his neighbors raised money to install and dedicate a memorial swing overlooking the playground equipment to the east.

“For many, many years — probably too many — we kept talking about doing something for Conny, who was our Santa,” said Linda Hansen-Randall, a Canterbury HOA board member.

The neighborhood worked with the Foothills Park and Recreation District on establishing the memorial. Though the district could not pay for the swing, it offered its services in design and installation.

“They really stepped up and raised the funds, which was fantastic,” said Colin Insley, Foothills director of parks, planning and construction, who braved the cold to attend the dedication. “It sounds like he was very instrumental in all the events they held here.”

The brief ceremony was an opportunity for neighbors to remember their holiday benefactor and to show appreciation for the things he did.

“I guess my point is, I just think Conny was a special person to work with,” Little said, “and he really did affect many lives in this community.”

Conrad Paquette’s daughters recall that playing Santa was never work to him, but instead a joy of the holiday season.

“My dad has been playing Santa forever,” McGuire said. “I think he had kids as an excuse to play Santa.”

She remembered her surprise as a youth when she first learned her dad was Santa Claus. Even in his home state of Rhode Island, Conrad Paquette donned the bright red garb for Christmas.

“He would go to my cousins’ house when they were little,” McGuire said. “And they’d open the door and go, ‘Hi uncle Conny.’ ”

His daughters estimated he played Santa for 35 to 40 years. Conrad Paquette chose to be Santa out of a love for Christmas.

“This was their favorite holiday,” Susan Paquette said, “both mom and dad — this was their favorite.”

His last appearance was for McGuire’s class, just days before he died on Nov. 30, 2001.

Now, on warmer days, McGuire goes to the memorial swing to open her mail. And for the rest of Canterbury, there is now a place where they can remember Santa.

“He was a real Santa,” Susan McGuire said.

Contact Matt Gunn at matt@evergreenco.com.