Rick Harden was a matter-of-fact web developer, a straightforward former Navy sailor.
But give him a big red suit trimmed in white, a matching cap and a oversized belt buckle with his other name on it — he already had the beard — and he became someone else entirely: one of Santa Claus’ look-alike helpers.
He loved being Santa. Changed his whole personality. Made him so, so light, and he just loved those kids to death, loved them.
Gayle Harden, widow of longtime Tacoma Mall Santa Rick Harden
Harden, a Graham resident who worked as a Santa at the Tacoma Mall for 15 years after two years at the South Hill Mall, died unexpectedly Feb. 25 at age 63.
He was a beloved fixture at the mall, someone who helped bring the magic to the Christmas season. And the job gave that magic right back to him, said Harden’s wife of 41 years, Gayle.
“Changed his whole personality,”she said. “Made him so, so light, and he just loved those kids to death, loved them.”
One year, Rick Harden put off his own family’s Christmas Eve festivities to spend time with a 2-year-old boy with cancer whose parents didn’t know if he would make it to Christmas Day.
Teddy bear in hand, and in full Santa suit, Harden spent time with the boy and his family. As Harden was going home that night, he got the call that the boy had died. Gayle Harden choked up as she retold the story.
The Hardens met at beauty school in 1972 — “He said, ‘I figured I could meet girls there,’ and he did,” Gayle said — but Rick never finished, instead working as a drummer full-time for decades.
They got married on a Sunday in October 1974 — he had a gig that Saturday.
Harden took up building websites in the early 1990s, which led him through Tacoma Community College; The Evergreen State College, where he got a bachelor’s degree; and the University of Phoenix, from which he received a master’s degree.
When Harden wasn’t in costume, he was working in health information and taking post-master’s classes from the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Among the Livingston, Montana, native’s survivors are his wife; daughter Adrienne Kish of Graham; and son Andrew of Spanaway.
“When he got into the chair, he had the patience of a saint. He just let the kids go on and on,” Gayle Harden said. “He’d come home and he’d still be in a good mood even after working 14, 15 hours. He was still mellow and happy after all that time.”
Harden ended up as a mall Santa after Gayle saw a photo of one of his granddaughters on his lap and noticed the resemblance.
“He always blamed me for it. He said, ‘You were the one who did this to me,’” she said. “But he loved it. He desperately loved it.”
Harden worked as a Santa at the South Hill Mall for two years before souring on the job, Gayle said. He moved to the Tacoma Mall by chance.
When he walked past the North Pole set there, a woman asked him if he could do the job.
He had it the next day, and never left.