They loved Christmas, and they loved each other, and for Roger and Helen Dawson of West Alexandria, one symbol of all that love was Santa Villa.
Through Roger and Helen’s hard work, with the help of friends and family, the once dilapidated building in the village was lovingly brought to life as a Christmas home for Santa and a place for children of all ages to visit and share the Dawson’s love for the holiday. Families could visit Santa and Mrs. Claus, receive a candy cane, and pick out a gift from beneath one of five Christmas trees within the villa.
For 21 years, Roger played Santa to Helen’s Mrs. Claus, welcoming the children, and sharing the Christmas spirit with families from not just West Alexandria and Preble County, but across the region.
After losing Helen in January 2012, Roger carried on with Santa Villa for only one more year. For the first time in 23 years, this Christmas season was the first he and the family were not personally involved.
Just before Thanksgiving, Roger and his granddaughter Heather Tackett shared the love story that was the Dawsons… a love that made an impression on hundreds of children throughout Santa Villa’s existence.
Roger and Helen met at Toot Drive-In New Lebanon in 1952. At first he made the trek there to see her via scooter, until his stepfather began giving him a car once a week. Then they’d drive over to Dayton, Roger said.
The couple went together for a year, before marrying at 18 years old on Sept. 4, 1953. They took up housekeeping in Farmersville, and got jobs – he at DP&L, she at NCR. After losing their first child, a son named Stevie who lived just 44 hours, they feared they would never have other children. But, determined as she was about most things, Helen wanted kids. The couple eventually had four, three boys and a girl, all two years apart in age.
They soon wound up in West Alexandria.
Besides each other and their family, the couple were also avid Christmas lovers.
They loved to decorate, and loved to look at Christmas lights. They would visit Whispering Christmas, Ludlow Falls, even went as far as a place in Illinois to look at lights. One year they wound up at Smedley’s, near Englwood, where there was a little building for Santa.
“We said, it would be nice to fix that old house in town into a Santa house,” Roger said.
And in 1991, the tradition began.
The Dawsons worked with West Alexandria’s Village Council to clean up and turn the building downtown which was going to be torn down, into a Christmas-lovers dream.
It wasn’t easy.
“We hauled out 13 loads of junk,” Roger said. Raccoons had taken up residence in the attic. Birds would fly in because of holes.
“Inside it was a total disaster.”
Donnie and the late Debbie Strebig helped them in their endeavor, according to Roger, who said the village council also put in a new sidewalk.
“Nobody could decorate like that woman,” Roger said of his beloved Helen. “She was the brains and I was the worker.”
Roger got used to saying, “Wherever you want it, hon’, that’s where we’ll put it,” he said.
“We both had that love for Christmas,” he said. “It kind of grew as we got older.” Roger said they always decorated the home in which he still lives. “Good Lord, you wouldn’t believe the decorations,” he said.
People from all over came to Santa Villa every year. The couple never charged for pictures and always made sure there was a camera to take them.
As Mrs. Claus, Helen couldn’t wait to hold babies, according to Roger. “It was the highlight of her life to see those babies come in there.”
Helen was a master at logging everything. In the front room of Santa Villa, the visitors would log their names, ages, and hometowns. Helen kept copious scrapbooks of everything that details the entire history of Santa Villa and the Dawson’s life.
Tackett laughs every time she thinks of one album of Helen’s. An album labeled “Grandma’s Pride and Joy” does not contain photos of her grandchildren. It’s all about Santa Villa.
“We had to share them those two weekends a year,” Tackett said.
“We were beyond blessed to have been given such wonderful grandparents.”
Roger and Helen went everywhere together in their truck. When she had a stroke in 2000 while they were visiting in Tennessee, and after hospitalization she needed transported back to Ohio, she wouldn’t accept a ride in an ambulance. She had to come back in the truck.
“After her stroke, I told her, ‘That truck won’t go without you,’” Roger said. To keep her with him, he now has a charm with their pictures hanging in it.
Much like that truck, Santa Villa just wasn’t the same without her.
“I wanted to give it up the last year she was with me,” Roger said. “In 2010 we were sitting at the east side of the building and I said ‘We’re going to have to’… But she gave me that dirty look. And I didn’t say any more.”
“I’m very, very grateful we had that last year.”
Roger’s own health issues have grown over the years. According to Tackett, he has been hospitalized seven times in the past year. He’s fought lung cancer, and almost lost a leg. He determined 2012, the first Christmas without Helen, was his last at the Villa.
“It just wasn’t the same,” he said. “I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Roger and his family only took personal belongings from Santa Villa, which the village is continuing. All the decorations, all the trees, all the toys, stayed.
“They belonged to Santa Villa – Santa Villa belongs to the village,” Roger said.
When Helen died, the family asked that contributions in her memory be made to the Santa Villa fund at Eaton National Bank. Since the family is no longer carrying on the tradition, the fund was donated to the Make-A-Wish foundation in a special way. The family wanted the money to go to help someone who loves Christmas the same way Helen Dawson did.
A youngster from Indiana, with a love of Christmas who wanted her own Santa room, received just that, with the funds donated to Make-a-Wish from Santa Villa.
“The night she passed away blindsided us,” Tackett said of her grandmother. She pointed out, her grandfather is a very gentle man who would rather have all the pain on himself than have anyone else suffer it.
“I tried to do my best for her for the years she had left,” Roger said of the time following Helen’s stroke. But the last few years, she wouldn’t get in the truck and go with him on their usual rides to places like Hueston Woods to watch the deer and wildlife.
“I didn’t accept it. I didn’t want to,” he said. But she was afraid of falling, and had trouble getting in and out of the truck. “And now, I’m going through what she went through. Couldn’t walk very well. Afraid of falling,” he added.
It was time to give up Santa Villa. But for Roger Dawson, the work and dedication he and Helen shared at Santa Villa from 1991 until the family gave it up, mean everything.
“I am proud of what it looks like inside,” he said. “That work and dedication is a highlight. And just to see the kids’ faces light up – they left happy.”
Surrounded by the memories logged lovingly by the woman who made sure everything was just right at Santa Villa, Roger Dawson is a man who knows all about the Christmas spirit, because he lived it every year he spent with the love of his life. And every year, for the past two decades, that love has impacted the many families and children whose lives were touched in the building in West Alexandria known as Santa Villa.