Doug Rogers, who has been the Santa in the parade for the last decade, had to sit out last night after a year during which he had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his esophagus and cirrhosis of the liver.
Tom Hamby and his wife Ellie starred as Santa and Mrs. Claus last night, but Rogers is praying that his doctors will be able to do for cirrhosis what they did for the esophageal cancer, that is — beat it.
If he does, Hamby said he would be happy to turn the reins of Santa's sleigh back over to Rogers.
"If he can do it, it's his," Hamby said.
Rogers took over Santa's seat in the sleigh a decade ago upon the retirement of Ronnie Bates. His hair and whiskers are naturally white, just perfect for the role.
He had been taking gigs as Santa for about four years before being asked to become the headliner for the Rome Christmas parade.
"I’ve done it for photo places, churches and schools," Rogers said. When the Christmas parade committee contacted him, he fell in love at that very first parade.
“What I love is that you'll know some of the kids’ names. You'll be in your suit and you'll holler ‘Hey, Sawyer’ and he'll turn around and tell his mom and dad, ‘He knew my name.’ I really love that," Rogers said. "I get phone calls from moms and dads all the time saying ‘you made our Christmas this year,’ just you seeing a certain child and calling out their name."
Back in the spring, Rogers was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
“The good Lord healed it," Rogers said. “The good Lord and good physicians.” He had a 7-inch tumor and it took both radiation and chemotherapy to completely erase it.
"But it attacked my liver so I have cirrhosis of the liver. I didn't drink or smoke, nothing, but I wound up with cirrhosis of the liver," said Rogers. "I took 30 treatments of radiation and six treatments of chemo."
The combination of his local physicians and liver specialists in Atlanta are keeping the cirrhosis in check, but he has to be cancer free for five years before he can even get on the list for a liver transplant.
"Right now they can't do anything but medicine and watch what I eat," Rogers said. "I'm praying that I'm going to beat it."
"Doug Rogers has been an integral part of Rome's Christmas parade for many, many years,” said Janet Byington, parade co-chairwoman. “He loved his role in the parade and we looked forward every year to seeing the joy on the faces of children and the adults who watched him be his jolly old self.”
Rogers also did the Calhoun parade for a number of years and has worked at stores around town at different times.
While this year will be the first for the Hambys in the parade, the couple has been doing an average of 20 Santa gigs a year in Rome for close to 20 years.
He is the traditional Downtown Development Authority Christmas Party Santa, and Hamby said he got started when local businessman Brian Lieberman asked him if he would consider the role at a party for his chiropractic clients back in the 1990s.
“I said ‘yes’ and it has snow-balled ever since," Hamby said..
Rogers is hoping he doesn't have to wait that long to get back into the red and white suit.
"It's just got me tired right now," he said. "I'll be back in the parade next year I hope."