Every year he’d come to town from Santa Barbara, put on his red costume and flood the city with holiday cheer, not to make money but to make a difference.

Although he didn’t live in Santa Monica, he became something of a local icon, a symbol of hope and happiness for the children and families he met around town.

“He felt like he was spreading magic,” Lauralee Asch said of Don Skipworth, who died of cancer Feb. 23 at the age of 78. “You thought of him, you thought of Santa.”

Skipworth, better known as “Santa Skip” in these parts, was a longtime educator and accomplished chef who found purpose in bringing joy to others as a bubbly, bearded Santa Claus.

He flourished as the central figure in Santa Monica’s annual Candy Cane Drive, an event organized by the city’s police and fire unions.

“We fell in love with him,” said Asch, community affairs coordinator for the Santa Monica Police Department. “He was amazing.

“And he refused to take a penny from us. He believed his payment was in the smiles of the children and adults who came out every year when they heard the sound of Santa’s sirens arriving at neighborhood parks, the Pier, Third Street Promenade and all along our annual route.”

Skipworth turned out to be a savior for Candy Cane Drive, an outreach effort by local police and fire associations that began in 1992. By the early 2000s, Asch said, the celebration was losing its luster.

“We kept having a problem finding a suitable Santa — someone who was really into it,” she said. “We’d sometimes end up with a reluctant recluse. A friend of mine said, ‘We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to have someone who connects with the kids.'”

Asch’s friend had a winning lead. She got in touch with her friend, Jim Grancich, who reached out to his friend in Santa Barbara. His name was Don Skipworth.

Skipworth had played the part of Santa Claus before — as a young junior high school teacher, he was asked by colleagues to don the quintessential costume and fake beard for a student holiday party. The experience had a strong impression on him.

“When I put on that uniform for the first time and I saw a child look at me – it was a little girl – the intensity with which she looked at me struck me,” Skipworth told the Daily Press in 2011. “This is the innocence of a true, believing child. For the believers, or those who were once believers, being that image opens the door to such warmth, excitement and love.”

Grancich, a former Santa Monica resident who befriended Skipworth about 18 years ago, recalled buying for Skipworth his first custom-made suit. Skipworth would start growing out his beard months in advance to prepare for his December role, Grancich said.

After holiday festivities on Main Street, Grancich often went out with Skipworth for dinner and cocktails and marveled at his friend’s ability to interact with community members as he browsed area shops and businesses.

“He was always in the moment with the kids — and the adults,” Grancich said. “He was big-hearted, patient and interested. It wasn’t a playbook. He listened to each kid’s wants and needs. He was such a sweet spirit.”

Born in Texas on Aug. 4, 1936, Skipworth moved with his family to Southern California and attended schools in Blythe and Ventura. He studied English, classics and the Far East at Stanford University and moved to Santa Barbara in 1962, working for 30 years in public education as a teacher and counselor.

Skipworth started volunteering with the Santa Monica police and fire departments in 2004, participating in Candy Cane Drive, delivering toys to the UCLA children’s hospital and injecting his buoyant spirit into community events on Main Street and beyond.

Local emergency responders recognized him in 2009 for his community service, and Asch said they plan to honor him posthumously, perhaps through a recurring scholarship program.

But Skipworth was much more than a Santa Claus look-alike. His interests in travel and cooking went hand in hand, yielding a hobby that allowed him to learn new techniques and incorporate foreign cuisines into his work as a chef and food consultant. He taught cooking classes at Sur La Table in Santa Monica, and he once partnered with legendary chef Julia Child on a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood.

Skipworth is survived by his partner, Carlos Garcia, two cousins in Texas and nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by Robert Hannah, his partner of more than 40 years.

Memorial contributions in Skipworth’s name may be sent to Planned Parenthood of Santa Barbara, Ventura & San Luis Obispo Counties by mail (518 Garden St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101) or by phone at (888) 898-3806.

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, jeff@www.smdp.com or on Twitter.

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