For years, judge has lived double life to make sure kids in trying times get to see St. Nick
T. Jackson Bedford dressed up in a red Santa suit during a Christmas party for a lark back in the 1980s. The trial attorney donned a simple Santa costume with cotton beard. During the party, a friend’s wife said there was a little boy next door who had never seen Santa.
It was a moment that changed everything.
“The moment he saw me, he threw his arms around my legs,” said Bedford, who lives in Buckhead. “It was a magical moment, and that’s when I realized the power of a Santa suit.”
In 1993, Bedford, an attorney who would soon become a longtime Fulton County Superior Court judge, founded the Santa Project with the Atlanta Bar Association. He has recruited seven Santas, including four who are African-American, and 30 elves. They include judges, attorneys and other staff members who help provide visits with Santa for children who might not otherwise get to see the jolly fella. The appearances include stops at a local shelter for women and children, Jerusalem House, which provides housing for homeless and low-income people and families affected by HIV/AIDS, and visits with children in foster care.
Bedford also makes time for a few special Santa appearances for friends, family and colleagues.
“It feels so good and positive,” said Bedford, now 74, “that it teaches us the lesson it’s better to give than to receive.”
Serving as a judge and Santa may seem like an unusual combination, but Bedford makes the seamless transition year after year. For those who know Bedford, the judge-Santa combo makes perfect sense. And being Santa is a role Bedford has been preparing for over many years, maybe even his entire life.
“I’ve been in front of loads of judges, and he is everything you’d want in a judge — he is thoughtful and patient, respectful and a good listener,” said Ronne Kaplan, a family law attorney. “Judges like him can’t always do exactly what I want them to do. But if they have an open mind … you can’t ask for anything more.”
Kaplan is one of the Santa Project’s elves. Kaplan, who is Jewish, joined the project about 18 years ago. Two years later, she got married, and her husband, Ron Nenner, who is also Jewish, is also an elf.
“He is the right kind of Santa. … He’s adorable and so warm,” said Kaplan. “Plenty of judges do volunteer work, but this is his trademark.”
A heartfelt connection
Bedford, who recently retired as a Fulton County Superior Court judge, now serves as a senior judge for Georgia.
Once judges in Georgia retire, they can take a “senior status” appointment. Senior judges can then hear cases on an ad hoc basis to help reduce case backlogs or to take cases that other judges cannot hear because of a conflict.
He also continues to embrace the role of Santa. With two custom-made, deep red velvet suits and with his rosy red cheeks, Bedford certainly looks the part. He starts growing his snow-white beard every year in July.
But it’s the way he interacts and connects with children that makes him such a special Santa Claus.
At Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston, it begins with a knock at the door of a hospital room and perhaps the sound of jingle bells dangling from his thick, black belt. Specifically, Bedford makes the rounds at the hospital's Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Ansley Johnson, volunteer services special events coordinator at Children's, said children at the hospital sometimes worry Santa may not know where to find them. And when families hear the knock on the door, they often assume it's a nurse or another clinician.
“And then it’s Santa,” said Johnson. “Judge Bedford is really good at being personable and spending time with families. He knows their names, and makes them feel special. It’s a powerful moment and special memory.”
Johnson said she will sometimes offers tips and guidance to Santas (a total of six Santas will visit Egleston on Christmas; several more visit other Children’s locations) on what to say to young patients in the Aflac Cancer Center. Some Santas may be shy or worried about saying the wrong thing. But for Bedford, the words, the connection, come naturally to him.
Bedford, who started going as Santa to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Egleston location on Christmas Day 22 years ago, has a deeply personal connection to Egleston. His grandson, Brandon, who was diagnosed with cancer at age 9, was treated at the hospital for years. Sadly, Brandon died in 1998.
Bedford has two daughters and a grandson who is 18.
“I do the pediatric oncology floor, and in large part in memory of Brandon,” he said. “I think about him every time I am on the oncology floor.”
Hospitals try to discharge children for Christmas if possible. Children who remain at the hospital are often very sick.
“My hope is to bring a little bit of joy when there’s so much heaviness around them,” said Bedford. “They are away from their homes, their Christmas trees, and I can say, ‘Hey, Santa’s here,’ and give them a little bit of normalcy.”
2 roles, 1 giving spirit
Before serving on the bench, Bedford was a trial lawyer handling a variety of cases, including criminal, domestic and personal injury cases. A Vietnam War veteran, Bedford also served in the U.S. Navy for several years. He flew over 100 combat support missions during the Vietnam War.
A longtime Superior Court judge in Fulton County, he was first elected in 1996.
“I wanted to be a judge because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives and do right by society and people,” he said. “You have to balance all of that, and you are to be aware part of justice is protecting victims in society, too, and you have to honor the law.”
Bedford said divorce cases were often heart-wrenching.
“Seeing what happens during a divorce and how devastating that is to children were some of the hardest things to deal with and very emotional and hard for me,” he said. “I have tremendous empathy for children. That’s why visiting children in women’s shelters, and other children in difficult circumstances is so rewarding.”
He also reflected on gratifying moments — giving young men reduced sentences and second chances, and seeing them take advantage of the opportunities and turn their lives around. And some of the most joyful moments? Finalizing adoptions. Bedford even wears his Santa suit for these happy occasions during the month of December.
“I guess Santa is about love and charity and giving, and I guess it’s made me reflective as a judge to think about those characteristics,” he said.
In 1996, Randy Fry was studying at John Marshall Law School when he decided to sit in Bedford’s courtroom to observe the judge who had recently started the Santa Project.
“I was so impressed how he treated everyone in the courtroom, and then I heard about him leading this elf thing,” said Fry, a personal injury attorney. He is now a lead elf for a handful of events, including a large event every year for adults with special needs. “He had a vision and a heart for it, and I decided it was something I wanted to be part of.”
“It’s really fun to watch and even those teenagers who walk up to Santa seeming tough and cool, you see that effort to be cool start to melt,” said Colbenson. “For some of these kids, they have never seen Santa. No one has ever taken them to see Santa. They want that picture with Santa.”
Colbenson said Bedford is not only Santa for the CHRIS 180 annual luncheon in late December, but he also helps raise money for the organization and recently agreed to make a Santa appearance at a private home as a fundraiser for the organization.
“He’s been our Santa for a very long time,” said Colbenson. “And he is the best Santa ever. I’m just sayin’.”
And every Christmas Eve, Bedford visits a women’s shelter, and thanks to help from elves and donations from at least one local business, he meets with children and provides gifts to every child staying at the shelter. It’s important to reserve Christmas Eve for the shelter, he said.
Children mostly ask questions about the reindeer, about Mrs. Claus, about life in the North Pole. Rarely do children ask for specific presents without their parents prompting, he said. Last Christmas Eve, a group of children in all ages gather around him, ask questions. He performs magic tricks. He drops a spotted handkerchief into one of his special bags. He hands out wands to the children. With a wave of the wands, the spots vanish. Where did they go?
Let’s say, “Go Spot Go.”
Go Spot Go. Go Spot Go.
The handkerchief emerges with adorable dog faces and ears.
“You are talking about a shelter and these families have domestic problems and no home to go to for Christmas,” he said. “Being there on Christmas Eve, it adds some real Christmas spirit to otherwise difficult circumstances.”
And on Christmas, he returns to Egleston, and he then heads to the USO at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to greet troops and family members.
Year after year, Christmas arrives, and Bedford brings the best of the season and best of all of us to families across Atlanta.
After the first time as Santa 22 years ago, he and his wife, Patty, returned home on Christmas and paused in front of their fireplace. They embraced.
“We said, ‘This is what Christmas is all about,’” he said.