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Kentucky by Heart: Mike Howard went from ‘black sheep’ to beloved ‘Mountain Santa,’ the legend

Because Christmas is all about traditions, we are offering this traditional Kentucky by Heart column on Mike Howard, the Mountain Santa who, sadly, has passed away. But like the Christmas spirit in all of this, his spirit lives on in his legacy of generosity to others. Merry Christmas — and happy memories.)

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Mike Howard remembers with dismay the negative reputation he carried while growing up as one of 11 kids in an Eastern Kentucky town.

Mountain Santa (Mike Howard) delivering presents with a volunteer (Southeast Outlook)

“Guess I was the black sheep of the family,” Mike said and then recalled a particularly harrowing experience. “One time I threw a rock from up on the roof down and hit my brother in the head. I went inside and told my mom I’d killed him. About age 16, the Lord started dealing with me.”

Turns out, the injury to his brother wasn’t that bad, and it may have been a reprieve that helped him lift his life onto a higher path. His neighbors around Wallins Creek, in Harlan County, are sure convinced he is, and with good reason. Now in his late 50s, Mike is known for his outrageous acts of kindness during the Christmas season and beyond, and he proudly wears the nickname “Mountain Santa,” a label that only begins to describe his character as a good and giving man.

Every year since 1974, Mike and his band of inspired helpers have faithfully delivered pickup loads of toys and other treats to both young and old in the Harlan community during the days leading up to Christmas. It has become a growing operation, with the most recent period showing more than one hundred loads delivered.

But seasonal acts of compassion aren’t all Howard does. The wiry-built man demonstrates his kindly nature throughout the year, making weekly visits to inmates at the local jail, strumming his guitar and singing gospel songs. He also frequents Harlan County’s nursing homes, where he is a big hit with residents who look forward to his gifts of milkshakes, bananas and other treats, along with the smiles and personal attention he shares with them. He’s helped neighbors pay their “juice,” or electric bills. He’s a wonderful father of two sons and a daughter, and he adores his wife, Barbara.

“He’s a good man,” said Lt. Ronnie Bennett, who has been employed at the Harlan County Detention Center for 15 years. “He comes twice a week with a group and plays gospel music for the inmates. He’s humble and this is not something that he does for himself.”

Mike Howard raising funds at roadblock in Harlan (Harlan Enterprise)

Deanie Rigney, an official at the Harlan Health and Rehabilitation Center, explained how Howard “visits everyone and takes note of things they’d like him to bring them. It might be something from McDonalds or a home grown tomato. All our residents get smiles on their faces when Mike shows up here.” She praised him for attracting the helpers that work with him in his kind acts. “People are in just such awe of what he does and want to help,” she said.

Mike is on a daily mission to demonstrate uncommon love to his neighbors—and it always starts with his uncommon focus on prayer.

Mike “heads to the mountain,” as he calls it, behind his home which sits along the rippling Wallins Creek on Santa Claus Lane. There he finds time to pour out his yearnings to his God in prayer, mostly concerning how he can give to “old people and widows,” whom Mike says he loves, along with the children he sees during the Christmas season. “Been doing it for years, sometimes five, six times a week,” he said. “And if it rains, I take an umbrella. If it snows, I take me a stick.”

Mike also uses a closet in the family’s house as a prayer sanctuary. “I just move the shoes in there away,” he said with a grin.

Mountain Santa is the nickname given him, said Mike, “by some man in Louisville who heard about me.” The name is a badge that he is proud to wear, and it’s a way to get others interested in helping with the ongoing mission. However, don’t think that he is a man of great financial resources who is looking to unload his dollars in some great philanthropic endeavor. That would be far too easy.

Truth is, Mike talks about how he often orders his goodies, like candy, fruit and chips he plans to distribute, “not knowing where the money will come from.” But it always seems to arrive on time.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood trips orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state. “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

“People will come up to me at the store counter, shake my hand and give me the money,” said Mike. He appreciates, for starters, the anonymous person who regularly sends $20 and the church that donates two hundred dollars per month. And there are the hundreds of people who help with the gift wrapping, and those who collect money standing outside in the middle of car traffic by participating in local “road block” fund-raising.

It’s all about his God watching over him and his desire to be a servant, according to Mike. “I believe when you do a good deed, God writes it down and when you need a blessing, he gives it to you.”

Tears well up in his eyes when he talks about some of the people who share gifts to be given away. “They say ‘if it weren’t for you we never would have had any Christmases. Now we are able to help you,’” Mike said.

Mountain Santa’s warehouse, set off to the side of his house, is a 20-by-100-foot concrete block building that was built in three stages as funds were available. The long building starts being filled with presents to wrap for delivery many months before the Christmas season arrives. His volunteers, like elves, spend hours sorting thousands of items like candy, fruit, toys and other gifts.

“People bring the toys from all over, and we use roadblock money for the treat bags,” said Mike. “This year (in 2011), we had over a hundred trucks, and that is where my son Jordan came into play.” Mike and Jordan each led groups of 22 trucks and made hundreds of members of the community happy with Christmas goodies, but more importantly, showed individuals that others cared. “The longest run this year was Christmas Eve. It’s our home town and it took 11 hours to finish it,” Mike explained.

His wife, Barbara, is given much credit by her husband for the ongoing inspiration she has shared through many years. “I got a backer,” said Mike, with emotion in his voice. “I look to her for guidance. She’s my wife, and a good mother. I love her more than when I married her.”

Mountain Santa is a man of gratitude as much as he is a man of compassion. He remembers when he threw the rock at his brother when he was young, and he’s glad that others didn’t give up on him then.

And after all these years, the positive results of the faith shown in Mike Howard are quite clear to all.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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