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Up the chimney, straight to heaven: Remembering Walt ‘Santa Walt’ Queen

John Boel recounts his long history with Walt "Santa Walt" Queen — "the most amazing person I’ve ever met."
Published: May. 20, 2022 at 1:59 PM EDT
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(WAVE) - Back in 1989, I was a brand new reporter in Louisville working the night shift.

A big part of my job was knocking on doors of people grieving the sudden loss of loved ones. It’s a horrible part of the job. I literally watched a really good reporter who sat next to me quit because of that part of the job and never go back to his career as a journalist after having to do that dozens of times back in the 90s.

In those situations, getting a door slammed in your face was one of the better outcomes. Usually, I was called horrible things or threatened - or people actually tried to attack me.

On Aug. 10, 1989, I was sent out to Walt Queen’s house to try to get a photo or find out more about his two daughters tragically killed in one of the most horrible crashes they’ve ever had downtown on I-65. On the drive over, I thought about how angry I would be. The lives of two girls - two sisters - at the start of a promising journey through life, taken because some truck driver didn’t secure his load of junk cars correctly.

On the walk up to the house, I cringed in anticipation of the abuse I was about to take - the justified abuse - at a moment like this. I prepared my feeble excuse for being there, but something bizarre happened. My knock on the door was met by something I’ve never seen before or after these kinds of reporter intrusions: a smiling man with a soothing voice invited me and my photographer in. Oozing with kindness, he wanted to tell us all about his girls, what made them special. How blessed he was by God to have the time he had with them.

We talked until Walt got tired of raving about his girls. That took a long time. I don’t remember much about what he said, because I was floating above this surreal scene, unable to comprehend it.

I didn’t understand why, because my walk with Christ was just getting started. Luckily, I had Walt Queen demonstrating what that walk is supposed to look like. He invited us to his church. I could see something special about this guy, different, and it came in handy as I was about to plug myself into church full force here at Southeast. I wanted what this guy had. The way he’s dealing with this had to be a God thing. I didn’t know it, but I was about to learn another important lesson from Walt.

I don’t remember the date, because the newsroom I was in at the time had somehow dropped the ball and wasn’t at the sentencing hearing for the trucker who killed Walt’s daughters Jackie and Jill. I remember being up at the TVs we used to monitor the other stations’ newscasts. In fact, a bunch of people were gathered around them, because there was this unbelievable story going on. As the guy who killed his daughters sat there convicted of reckless homicide, awaiting his prison sentence, Walt was forgiving him in open court.

”Today my wife and I release you,” Walt said. “We are not angry at you. We do not hate you. We forgive you.”

The trucker was crying. People around me watching were tearing up. Others stood there with their mouths open. Then Walt went on to ask the judge to change the sentence and give the man probation instead of prison time. The judge agreed. People walked out of the courtroom stunned. People walked back to their desks in the newsroom stunned.

I’d like to tell you I started forgiving everyone and every thing around me after that incredible, ultimate example Walt set, but I didn’t.

It wasn’t until sometime later, I’m not sure how many months went by, that I was sitting at Bob Russell’s men’s bible study at Southeast, and they introduced a guest speaker for that Saturday morning.

Hey wait, I know that guy - up walked Walt. Same beaming smile and modest, soothing voice, and he set out telling that whole story in much more detail. And people around me - lifelong Grade A practicing Christians - were blown away. I know for a fact it changed lives that day because some of them told me examples of the ways it did.

Walt’s bottom line message was similar to what he would tell me years later: ”The Lord’s Prayer is pretty specific,” he said. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. It’s not optional.”

I went home and checked. Yup, same Lord’s Prayer I’d been reciting since I was a kid. It’s right there: Jesus covered a lot of ground in delivering the Lord’s Prayer, but forgiveness is the only topic he elaborates on afterward.Matthew 6, 14: ”For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

I heard a speaker one time say, “What’s the one thing everyone wants - but few are willing to give? Forgiveness.”

Over the years, I learned how right Walt was in following Christ on this in a myriad of ways. One example: decades later when I’m in rehab dealing with addiction, I learn how “resentments” are the biggest triggers, and in recovery, you identify areas where you haven’t forgiven people and do the work to get it done. Where it seems impossible, they tell you to pray about it every day and over time it will get easier. Sure enough, that works.

As impossible as it sounds, Jesus was on to something, and Walt knew it.

As we all know, Walt found the perfect way to harness his stewardship and service to the Lord when he became Santa’s number one helper. ”The ambassador of joy for the Lord” he called himself. Amen.

As I watched him interact with kids at Bass Pro one day, it reminded me of something in Luke 18: “People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

I thought, “Man, this is the perfect job for Walt.”

I asked him how it was going once and he said, “My main message to the kids is forgiveness. No one has done anything they can’t be forgiven for, but you have to acknowledge you’ve done something wrong.”

I did the math once and determined he’d had hundreds of thousands of children on his lap spreading that message. That’s some kind of reach. Santa showers us with gifts, but we seldom get the chance to give Santa a gift.

I’ll never forget the day I had the chance to give a gift to Santa Walt. I called him to the station back in 2015 and didn’t tell him what it was about. He came in and I met him and gave him the Emmy award we had just won for a story we did about him. I’ve never seen someone so appreciative. It truly touched his heart. He didn’t even realize the only reason we won that award was because of the incredible light he shined on society, and that was my last interraction with Walt until this past December.

My phone was blowing up from people who had seen the Facebook post that Walt had been diagnosed with cancer. I called him and we had the most beautiful talk. We both decided it was time for another story. I knew whatever came out of his mouth would be a source of strength for so many people. He knew he may not have much time left, and this might be a good opportunity to impact lives for the Lord yet again.

If you think about it, Jesus’ best teaching came when he knew his time was short on Earth.

So here we were again, sitting in his house in another awkward situation by earthly standards, almost 33 years after our first meeting at his house in a similarly difficult, delicate situation. I didn’t prepare any questions this time because I knew Walt would lead me to a fountain of hope, with profound observations and conclusions about dealing with adversity and the meaning of life. He’d just had his sixth blood transfusion, but the room was filled with strength. No weakness. No fear.

”My mind says, ‘You’re in big trouble boy,’” he said. “But my heart keeps saying, ‘I’ve got you. I’ve got you.’ And I choose to believe my heart. It’s the same way He told me He had me that horrible day that the girls died. It was a certainty He was gonna take care of me.”

I remember sitting there feeling for the first time in my life that I could be this strong too if I were in the same situation - when I’m in the same situation some day. You see, that’s what Walt did. He embodied and lived out everything the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches, not just when it’s easy. When it’s tough. When it seems impossible.

A day or two later, I got word that after Walt’s seventh blood transfusion he received word that his cancer was in fact stage 4 - terminal. All the air went out of my lungs. Everyone was devastated.

We had a shoot scheduled at a private party that evening to get some current video of Santa Walt interacting with the kids at a Christmas Party. I was almost too embarrassed to ask, but it’s a good thing I did, because I eventually texted Whitney, “So the shoot tonight is obviously off right?” This party was just a few hours after Walt learned he was stage 4 terminal. To my shock, she responded, “No, it’s still on.”

Of course it was. How dumb am I? We’re talking about Santa Walt Queen here.

I told my young photographer, “You’re going to witness something tonight that’s probably going to be the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen.” And it was, and once again, as it was on Aug. 10th 1989, I sat there floating above the room watching this surreal scene of this magical man, the “Ambassador of Joy for the Lord,” taking the kids slowly and meaningfully through “The Night Before Christmas,” asking questions, laughing, making the kids laugh, no hint of the devastating news he’d just learned.

But it wasn’t until I got back and watched the videotape the next day that I saw what I didn’t see. A long time ago, a reporter taught me to meticulously go through every frame of video and audio because you never know what really went on. The most important “moments” that happen in our lives are sometime hidden from plain view.

As I carefully combed through the tape, I saw the “truth.” I watched Walt ask for help.

He couldn’t even pick up the Christmas cookies sitting in front of him. Santa isn’t supposed to have trouble eating the treats, but Santa Walt was vulnerable, and he wasn’t afraid to express his vulnerabilities. That’s what happens with cancer. That’s the truth. People came up and asked him if they could help. He told them, “It’s a mercenary cancer. It shows no mercy. It will get worse before it’s over.”

That’s what happens with cancer. That’s the truth.

While loved ones tried to comfort him, Walt was the one doing the comforting.

”If we can connect in spirit with the Father, connect with his will, we’ll know,” he said. “If we do that, it doesn’t matter whether I’m healed or whether I die, because I want to be in the Lord’s will.”

Again, Walt spoke the truth. The truth of the gospel. There were long, meaningful hugs, by loved ones, filled with tears.

“This is probably my last visit,” he said, and he wiped away their tears.

Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, Walt Queen needed no visits by three spirits to keep him fully aware of how life and beyond are supposed to be lived. He rejoiced in the spirit of Christmas Past. Loved to tell you about how things used to be. He immersed himself in the spirit of Christmas Present and enhanced everything associated with goodwill, generosity, and the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and he foiled the spirit of Christmas Future, who in the movie was supposed to represent the fear of death.

”To have my daughters come up to me and say, ‘Dad, we’ve been waiting for you. It’s been a long time.’ That would be special,” he told me. ”I would hope that when I meet the Father, he would say, ‘job well done, my good and faithful servant.’ That’s all.”

I sat there watching this and thought about some of the other amazing people I’d met in almost 40 years as a journalist. You see a lot of darkness, but you also see a lot of light, and it occurred to me no one I have ever met has lived out the gospel of Jesus Christ quite as profoundly as Walt Queen.

So I walked up to Santa as he was trying to eat his treats, kneeled over, stuck my face into his thick white beard and whispered, “You are the most amazing person I’ve ever met. Thank you for what you’ve done for me.”

I wept as I drove back to the station. I thanked God for allowing me to meet this man. I knew that was likely my last time witnessing his witness, and sure enough, laying his finger aside of his nose, giving a nod, up the chimney he rose. Up the chimney straight to heaven.

I smile when I think of the reception with his daughters among many, and I envision his smile when he most certainly heard, “Job well done, my good and faithful servant.”

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