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Beach mayor hangs up Santa suit

Politics spoils a 22-year tradition as Leon Atkinson decides not to don his red suit this year.

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

TREASURE ISLAND -- Santa is outta here.

For the first time in 22 years, Mr. and Mrs. Claus aren't waving from the rooftop of Mayor Leon Atkinson's Gulf Boulevard cottage.

The snow-bearded mayor and his wife, Jeri, usually light up their roof and park in their rocking chairs for two hours each night from Dec. 19 to Dec. 23. Mrs. Atkinson, who sewed their costumes, invites neighborhood children to join them as elves. On Christmas Eve, the Atkinsons leave the lights on, but their chairs are empty.

Earlier this month, Atkinson, 70, was sweeping the roof and preparing to hoist an 8-foot snowman. A couple of men on bicycles heading toward Sunset Beach hollered obscenities. Then a motorist driving toward the southern end of the beach shouted that Atkinson should get out of town.

"I just can't take the chance that that kind of thing would happen when kids are there," Atkinson said.

Oh sure, Atkinson has been heckled in the past, usually by teenagers.

This was personal. "These were adults; they were vicious," he said.

Atkinson believes the passersby are from Sunset Beach, where the uproar about new land development regulations began earlier this year. Led by Atkinson, the City Commission implemented new height allowances before the voters had a chance in November to pass stricter laws.

Atkinson, who announced Thursday that he won't be running for re-election in March, said he can handle criticism. But when politics interferes with Christmas, it's gone too far.

"I'm more upset about that than anything else that's ever occurred in this city," Atkinson said Thursday, tears welling up in his eyes.

Atkinson, with his round face and beard, is often compared to the Christmas icon. A few years ago, he filled in for Santa on the spur of the moment at the city's annual tree lighting. The hired Santa had suffered a spell and sat in the linen closet in his underwear while Atkinson greeted the city's children on his lap.

Carol Malkin, head of the city's beautification committee, stood up at a commission meeting Thursday morning to scold those unknown citizens who prompted the Atkinsons to stop their annual tradition.

"What happened to peace on earth and good will toward men?" she asked.

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