To know how much Lucille Birchem wanted to have dinner with Santa this week, you have to understand what she gave up: her weekly game of bingo.

The octogenarian, the youngest of 14 kids from Browns Valley, Minn., said she looks forward to "all of it" each year: the singing, the meal, the gifts.  More than that, though, "it's nice getting out," she said.

She's not alone.

Now in its 13th year, "Dinner with Santa" on Monday, Dec. 17, brought more than 160 senior home residents to the White Bear Country Inn in White Bear Lake, where a team of volunteers --- including 40 Santas -- served dinner and socialized with a part of the community that is sometimes overlooked.

Event founder and hotel owner Bill Foussard '72 said the

Bill Foussard, center right, gives instructions Monday night to some of the Santa volunteers working his 13th annual "Dinner with Santa." More than 160 seniors attended the event held at Foussard's White Bear Country Inn in White Bear Lake. (Pioneer Press: Chris Polydoroff)
evening is worth having just for "the smiles on peoples' faces, how appreciative they are."

If it sounds maudlin, it's not -- some seniors, when embraced by their Santa, held on and only reluctantly let go. During a round of "Silent Night," one man gripped a volunteer's hand as tears welled in his eyes.

It was the kind of moment Foussard had told the Santas to encourage in his warmup speech.

"Hold their hands, give 'em a hug," he said. "We're all going to be old someday, so let's hope people spend time with us, too."

Brian Hupperts, 29, started putting on the red suit as a teenager at St. Thomas Academy and has come back every year since.

"To us it's such a little thing to do, but to them it means so much," he said.

This year, he even recruited a couple of friends in town from Norway.

"Did you think you'd be doing this when you came to visit?" Hupperts asked Erlend Kristoffersen, a graduate student at the BI Norwegian Business School, before the guests arrived.

"No," he said, adjusting a scratchy beard plucked from a rack of costumes. "This is uncomfortable."

The staff of Santas included the local city administrator, a noted architect and several high school students.

Rob Bement of Stillwater said he was probably the only one with a real beard, though. He usually volunteers his Santa services at day care facilities or his Stillwater gym "for real little ones," he said, but he makes an exception for this one night.

"I remember people a couple years back telling me they only get out once a year -- and this was it," he said.

Foussard brought the "Dinner with Santa" tradition to White Bear in 2000 after starting it at a St. Cloud hotel 28 years ago. Even though he sold the central Minnesota business a few years ago, the new owners kept up the annual meal.

David and Betty Radermacher, residents at Pioneer Manor now in their fourth year at the event, said they wouldn't miss it.

"It's just wonderful that (Foussard) does this for the community," Betty Radermacher said. "When we came four years ago, there were only eight people from Pioneer Manor. Now we've got 16 coming."

Barb VanGuilder, who moved into the Manor just a week before the dinner, said someone signed her up to go to the coveted supper before she was even moved in.

"Everybody is so friendly," she said, calling the meal the type of event where "you give, you get back."

John Brewer can be reached at 651-228-2093.