For 10 months out of the year, LeRoy “Lee” LeGros kept a low profile. Retired after a long career as a clerk at ComEd, Mr. LeGros enjoyed the company of family and friends, and he continued following his passion for bowling with boyhood pals on their team, The Aches and Pains.
But, come December, Mr. LeGros transformed into the ultimate celebrity, someone countless kids in Brookfield looked forward to seeing every single year. To them, he was known simply as Santa Claus, resplendent in his white fur-trimmed red suit, shiny black boots and white gloves.
“He had that certain demeanor,” said Brookfield President Kit Ketchmark, remembering Mr. LeGros, who died July 17, 2018 at the age of 81.
Before moving visits with Santa to Irish Times due to the size of crowds, the Brookfield Chamber of Commerce had Mr. LeGros and his wife, Marie – who dressed up as Mrs. Claus – hold forth at the Grossdale Station. Ketchmark is also director of the Brookfield Historical Society, which operates the old landmark train station.
“He would stay there until the last kid had left,” Ketchmark said. “He was so patient with them. He and Marie really played it up and enjoyed it.”
Mr. LeGros and his wife, Marie, began dressing up as Santa and Mrs. Claus around 1991, just before Mr. LeGros retired from ComEd. It was Marie’s idea, something fun to do in retirement.
“I decided, Christmas Eve was coming up and there are so many people traveling. I made up outfits and said, ‘Let’s get going,'” said Marie LeGros.
According to his wife, Mr. LeGros was game from the start.
“That’s good. I’ll go for it,” Mr. LeGros responded to the suggestion, Marie said.
They would stock up on toys at a local dollar store, and their nephew, Greg LeGros, would drive them around the city and suburbs on Christmas Eve looking for people with whom they could share Christmas cheer.
Their travels sometimes took them to Lower Wacker Drive and to Chicago’s South Side.
“It was 75th [Street] and something,” Marie remembered, “and we saw a lady with a little boy and girl on the corner. We stopped the car, and I got our bucket of things. Lee had his sack over his shoulder; it was filled with cotton so it wasn’t heavy. And the kids – the look on their faces. They were so excited. We said, ‘We’re making a special visit to you.'”
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, they would visit Midway Airport, where officials let them wander the concourses, greeting Christmas Eve travelers, giving candy canes to adults and toys to the kids. They even took along a Polaroid camera, giving the photos to the travelers as mementos of the night they met Santa at the airport.
“It was so much fun to see the look on their faces,” Marie said.
Mr. LeGros and his wife would appear as Santa and Mrs. Claus at church events and would visit the homes of needy families identified by organizations like the Jaycees, passing out gifts.
In more recent years, they participated in the Brookfield Police Department’s Shop with a Cop program, with Mr. LeGros, as Santa, making a surprise appearance after the shopping trip to hand out presents to the kids involved.
Since 2008, Mr. and Mrs. LeGros were part of the Brookfield Chamber of Commerce’s annual holiday celebration. For the first several years, they would arrive at Ehlert Park via helicopter to throngs of kids.
“The kids would just swarm around them,” said Amy Weinert, a longtime chamber member who has known the LeGros family for years.
After landing at the park, where they roamed the crowd greeting kids, the couple spent hours at the Grossdale Station or Irish Times, visiting with children during the afternoon. At dusk, they’d get a special escort to Eight Corners, where Santa would flip the switch to light the tree at the Memorial Circle.
Mr. LeGros was serious about playing the role of Santa. He bought a special pair of shiny black boots that he wore only as Santa, and he even tried growing a beard, though the color didn’t quite match the white false hair he had to wear on his head.
Unable to find a salon willing to bleach his facial hair to match the wig, he reluctantly shaved it off.
Through all the years, Mr. and Mrs. LeGros never charged for an appearance, though organizations will slip them gift certificates as thanks, and often spent their own money on the candy and gifts they handed out.
“Too many take from life,” said Marie. “You have to be a giver. To me, it seemed a natural thing to do.”
Mr. LeGros was born May 30, 1937 and was a lifelong resident of Brookfield. He attended St. Barbara School and Riverside-Brookfield High School.
He served in the U.S. Marines and worked for ComEd for 39 years before retiring at the age of 57.
Marie and Lee LeGros, both of whose spouses had died previously, married on March 18, 1990. They were both parishioners at St. Barbara Church, where their friendship blossomed within a year of formally meeting at a parish dance.
Mr. LeGros was the husband of Marie LeGros (nee Harwood-Spacek); the stepfather of Dale Spacek and Dan (Amanda) Spacek; the step-grandfather of Jennifer (fiancé Frank Fuller) Spacek and Heather (Tony Esparza) Spacek; the brother of the late Harry LeGros, Bernard LeGros and Laverne Kozeluh; and the uncle of many nieces and nephews.
Visitation is on Sunday, July 22 from 3 to 8 p.m. and Monday, July 23 from 9 to 9:30 a.m. at Hitzeman Funeral Home, 9445 31st Street in Brookfield.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated on July 23 at 10 a.m. at St. Barbara Church, 4008 Prairie Ave., Brookfield. Interment will follow at Queen of Heaven Cemetary in Hillside.
This article has been changed to correct the year that LeRoy and Marie LeGros began their adventures as Santa and Mrs. Claus.