GARNER — James Phelps played Santa Claus at Christmas and continued playing the part year-round without the red suit (and sometimes with it), riding his motorized wheelchair around Garner and giving away treats.
But no more; the longtime Raleigh-area resident died at Rex Hospital on June 16 after an extended illness. He was 77.
Phelps started the nonprofit Project Santa in 1993. He wrote letters to companies all over the country, and they would donate toys, food, clothes and toiletries for families in need, according to his nephew, John Phelps.
“He was always giving more than he was taking,” John Phelps said. “He was well known by the residents around Garner.”
Project Santa no longer exists. James Phelps also started Santa Clause Inc. in 1997, which remains an active charity, according to the Secretary of State’s website.
James Phelps’ health suffered late in life, and he adapted to using a motorized scooter to get around. He could frequently be seen riding around Garner – where he lived most of the last two decades – with American flags sticking out the back of the scooter.
“Towards his later years, he would take his motorized wheelchair, go to Food Lion and get a deal on cases of bananas and oranges, and ride around to the rest home and give food out to the residents there. He would do that on a fairly regular basis,” John Phelps said.
He also handed out American flags, and sometimes Mexican flags to local Latinos, according to his nephew.
James Phelps played Santa Claus for numerous organizations, and occasionally he’d break out the red suit other times of the year.
He never had a driver’s license; he’d walk, catch a cab or get a ride from a friend.
He worked mostly for various grocery stores. John Phelps said his uncle was a connoisseur of eastern-North Carolina barbecue and was a Civil War buff. He used to search for artifacts with a metal detector and had a collection of bullets, buttons and even an old military pistol, John Phelps said.
Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams first encountered James Phelps when Phelps asked about putting in a sidewalk that could get him from his apartment in Forrest Hills to the nearby Food Lion.
Williams said he was persistent, and eventually the town built the sidewalk, which helped James Phelps navigate Vandora Springs Road.
Williams also said James Phelps was an advocate for veterans.
“He was an easy guy to be around,” Williams said.
John Phelps, who now lives in Lexington, Ky., also noted his uncle’s gregarious nature and friendly personality.
“He was a humorous guy. He always had a funny story about someone,” he said.