Hardbound shoe leather from former columnist at Christmastime

by Brian Clarey

Lorraine Ahearn stands at the podium positioned at the front of the room trying to explain her job at the Greensboro News & Record.

“We had two metro columnists, and they removed me last year,” she says. “I’m a reporter on the enterprise team.”

But even though she no longer writes a newspaper column, she is the favorite columnist of everyone in the room, yours truly included. We’re all here to listen to Ahearn read from her new book, The Man Who Became Santa Claus and Other Winter Tales, culled from 12 years of columns and 16 years of shoe-leather reporting, during which time she established herself as one of the best journalists in North Carolina.

“I’ve been reading your column for years,” one fan tells her before the reading, a woman in black leather who says she’s from Long Island, just like Ahearn. And just like me.

Now is as good a place as any to establish that I am not just a fan of Ahearn’s, not just a colleague and not just someone who grew up in the same place as she did, so long ago and so far away.

She is also a friend who is quick with support and good advice. And it is to her credit that I consider her a friend — not because my friendship is such a valuable thing, but because when compared to Lorraine Ahearn as a columnist, I come off looking like a piker. But professional jealousy does not enter the picture.

As I’ve said, Ahearn is a seasoned journo who’s done stints as an investigative reporter, worked cops and courts, tackled social and political issues, and even worked obits — her very first job at the N&R after she graduated from UNCG. And she’s won awards and accolades too numerous to list here.

But the book is more qualitative, giving glimpses of the city and its inhabitants in missives both succinct and evocative: the anonymous baby found dead in the park, the Oxford-trained physicist who lived on Greensboro’s streets for 30 years, the rural farmers who moved to a downtown townhome, the family who got pushed to the bottom and rose back up.

And then there’s the title story, about the department store Santa Claus who by circumstance and serendipity assumed the role of the real thing.

The scenes move from Four Seasons Mall to Wendover Avenue to the parks and streets and homes that make up the fabric of the city. Ahearn manages to weave them together into one magnificent quilt.

Some of the stories come from the “Winter People” series that ran in the N&R every year; others are examples of the unequalled enterprise and access Ahearn has as a reporter. And she’s roped a few of her newspaper friends into the deal. Former N&R reporter and editor Mike Kernels — whom I also consider to be a friend who is much better at this than I — took on the editing duties and the cover was designed by another N&R alum, Elaine Shields. And she even went local for the illustrations, tapping John Hitchcock, owner of Parts Unknown comic book store on Spring Garden Street.

The book is an easily digestible compilation of short vignettes that could probably be tackled in an afternoon. But I’ll be honest: I have not finished reading The Man Who Became Santa Claus and Other Winter Tales — mostly because it’s such an enjoyable read, but also because it brings my own shortcomings as a columnist into glaring relief.

info The Man Who Became Santa Claus and Other Winter Tales by Lorraine Ahearn; Cold Type Press; 2010

News & Record reporter Lorraine Ahearn has collected more than adecade’s worth of columns in her new book, The Man Who Became SantaClaus and Other Winter Tales. (photo by Brian Clarey)