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4:52 on Christmas Morning

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After the base was closed, the family moved to Louisville, 2-year-old Madonna and newborn Wade in tow. Lomer began a career in fire safety, first at a gunpowder plant, then at Brown-Forman, maker of Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort, where he was eventually named global head of safety and security. He formed in-house fire squads and trained alongside them. He designed a poster contest for employees’ children. (Madonna won first prize for her age group with the image of a fire truck and the slogan “Dial, call fire.”) He helped write federal fire-safety regulations for whiskey distilleries. He became almost obsessed with his work: While his children were watching Saturday-morning cartoons, he was watching videos of buildings on fire. He sometimes thrashed in his sleep, dreaming of fire and other calamities.

Always self-conscious of his country accent—blaming it for missed Air Force promotions—Lomer took his children every Wednesday to a linguistics and diction coach. They were taught to work, Madonna babysitting, Wade a paperboy for the Courier-Journal. They were also taught success. When Lomer’s uncle announced his retirement from his ­electrical-contracting company, Pauline, his longtime bookkeeper, bought it, becoming the first female electrical contractor in Kentucky; by the time she retired, the company that had once made $700,000 a year was making as much as $15 million. And they were taught, above everything, safety: In the event of fire, the family’s “rally point” was set between the Wilders’ and Judys’ driveways; the children were told they must never go back inside to retrieve others.

The children were expected to achieve, and they did, especially Madonna. Striking, with thick black hair and a small gap between her front teeth, she was a talented artist, homecoming queen, ­student-council president, and editor of the school newspaper. She attended Vanderbilt University, where she fell in with a population of Northeasterners, spending the summer after her freshman year with friends in the Hamptons. She stayed close with her parents, but never returned to Louisville for more than a week at a time.

Instead, they moved to her. In 2003, the Johnsons retired and moved to Southold, at the tip of Suffolk County, where Madonna and Matt Badger rented them a house across the water from their vacation home on Shelter Island. And when Madonna left for Stamford, they bought a condo in a retirement community in Southbury, Connecticut, an hour north.* Lomer and Pauline traveled constantly to visit family—to Louisville, to Newfoundland, where Pauline built a cottage on her parents’ property. Upon arriving at his children’s houses, Lomer, nine-volt batteries in his pocket, immediately checked their smoke detectors; for Christmas, he gave them fire ladders to store under their beds.

Around strangers, Lomer was reserved, but children were another story. Wade’s daughter, Morgan, rolling around on the floor with him one day, tugged on his white beard, which, after retirement, he had vowed never to shave again. It was a little eureka moment. The following holiday, he applied to malls, and when no one hired him, he bought a Santa suit himself, creating a profile on a website called gigmasters.com. He volunteered, attending a party for a Section 8 apartment complex, taking his granddaughters with him to a nursing home. (Said Sarah, enthusiastically passing out cookies: “Someone better tell the Tooth Fairy that this is where she needs to bring all the teeth, because these people really need them.”) In 2010, he secured a job at a mall an hour from home. He was named Head Santa, riding in the town’s fire truck for Thanksgiving.

And last year, in what he called a dream come true, he beat hundreds of applicants to become Saks Fifth Avenue’s first Santa. Saks’ Claus was instructed not to sit in a chair but rather to walk around the ninth floor interacting with customers; his “Christmas Shop” was designed to suggest “a traditional uptown apartment.” Lomer took the job extremely seriously. He lit the Christmas tree outside the U.N.

On Christmas Eve, his last shift of the year, Pauline drove him into Manhattan. She stayed, watching as the children ran to him and frazzled adults stopped to chuckle when he lumbered past. His knees were bad, and walking around this much aggravated them, but he was ebullient.


*This article has been corrected to show that the Johnsons lived in Southbury, not Southberry.


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