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La Crosse's beloved Santa and Mrs. Claus join hundreds of jolly folk at the Santa Family Reunion and convention in Tennessee
Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Bonnie and Dan Felton, better known as Santa and Mrs. Claus, recently returned from the annual Santa Family Reunion and convention in Tennessee.

Most people spent March 17 celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, resplendent in green and dining on soda bread and dark beer. And while Bonnie and Dan Felten were indeed in the holiday spirit, they were pairing red with their green, extending the joy of Christmas three months past.

In truth, every day is Christmas for the Feltens, better known as La Crosse’s renowned Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Dan, 75, and Bonnie, 74 — whose maiden name is, fortuitously, Claus — keep their home in North Pole-condition year round, a tree standing tall and shining brightly in their living room during a May 1 interview. Though the jolly couple have nearly two decades of experience embodying Christmas’ most prominent pair, they suited up for a little refresher mid-March, joining some 400 other suit clad Santas and Mrs. Claus’ at the annual Santa Family Reunion at the Gatlinburg Convention Center in Tennessee.

The Feltens, who have been attending for the past 11 years, were first alerted to the event by 10 people who saw it in a newspaper and shared the clipping.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

An ornament with a photo of Bonnie and Dan Felton from 2001, the first year they started impersonating Santa and Mrs. Claus, hangs from a Christmas Tree that occupies the living room of their la Crosse home year round.

“They make such a celebration about it in Gatlinburg,” Dan said. “People get a charge out of seeing all the Santas.”

Held March 14-18, the mass gathering brings Santas and their spouses from across the country to share tips, meet fellow boot and belt enthusiasts and do some good.

They participate in a blood drive for Tennessee area hospitals, bid on a charitable live auction on secret, gift-wrapped items, stuff a sleigh with donations for the Smoky Mountain Children’s Home in Sevierville, Tenn., and attend workshops on creating visits for individuals with disabilities, portraying Santa professionally and ethically, preparing and posing for perfect pics and spreading the spirit of Christmas through the use of simple magic.

A decade ago, Bonnie opted to attend the puppeteering class — “I wasn’t interested in the ‘how to keep your beard white’ course” — developing ventriloquist skills she utilizes with sidekick Olive, a stuffed puppy.

“Olive is so revered, she had her own name tag (at the reunion),” Bonnie said with a chuckle. Asked how many of the fellow Santas they know by name, Bonnie smartly replied “They’re all Santa!”

While “most people think all you have to do is put on a Santa suit and sit in a chair,” Dan says, he and Bonnie start preparing for the next Christmas on Dec. 26, collecting trinkets and stories at the convention to pull out next winter.

Among the new treasures they picked up are a reindeer harness, a wand that glows when the spirit of Christmas is present and the tale of the white feather, which Santa leaves if children wake up during his visit. The feather clears the memory from their mind, but they awake to find the “proof” he was there.

During the “Swap and Share” portion of the convention, Santas traded holiday decor and props, while a talent show offered a chance to demonstrate skills beyond a hearty “ho ho ho.”

During a runway fashion show, Santas strutted their stuff while wearing the latest trends in “Clauswear.” In past years, the Feltens have donned both red- and white-striped 1920s style bathing suits and Oktoberfest-style Santa gear for the show.

There is no competition among the men — and women — in red, the Feltens say, with the convention all about mentoring, sharing experiences and spreading joy.

During the convention’s “Parade of Santas,” community members flocked to the sidewalk to marvel at the sea of Santas flooding the streets in the midst of spring.

“People just come and wander up and down — you can take pictures with kids for hours if the legs hold up,” Dan said.

Children are, of course, curious about the abundance of bearded men, a curiosity which reunion members explain as a training of helpers. At holiday time, Santa is simply too busy to solicit assistants, gathering a group in spring instead to work out any kinks for the next holiday.

“We tell them to talk to all the Santas, and the one that touches your heart is the real Santa,” Dan said.

Beyond the convention, the Feltens also enjoy a Santa Cruise and stay dressed in seasonal attire spring, summer and fall. The sight brings smiles everywhere they go.

“By staying in character all year and wearing red all year, anytime we go to a new city or a restaurant or a hotel, people want to take their picture with us and tell us their Christmas stories,” Dan says. “It’s such a joy.”


Wisconsin GOP renews anti-abortion push

MADISON, Wis. — The decades-old fight over abortion rights in Wisconsin is heating up again as Republican legislators push a quartet of bills designed to curtail the practice despite Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ opposition. Here’s a look at the key elements in the debate:

HOW IS ABORTION RESTRICTED IN WISCONSIN NOW?

It’s complicated. The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling legalizes abortions performed before a fetus has a reasonable chance of surviving outside the womb. The ruling doesn’t define that point, saying it could range between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill in 2015 that prohibits abortions in Wisconsin after 20 weeks gestation except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. A state law passed in 1849 bans abortions without exceptions but Roe vs. Wade invalidated it. The statutes remain on the books, however. Abortion rights advocates want to erase the language in case Roe vs. Wade is overturned.

WHAT HAVE REPUBLICANS PROPOSED?

Four bills on abortion since mid-April.

One would prohibit the state from certifying under Medicaid private health care providers that perform abortions. That would cut off Medicaid funds for Planned Parenthood. Another would prohibit abortions based on the fetus’ race, sex or defects. Yet another would require providers to tell women seeking drug-induced abortions that they can still save the fetus after ingesting the first dose. That bill would also require providers to report to the state the number of abortions a woman has had, how she’s paying for the latest one and the reason for it.

The highest-profile proposal is a bill that would require health care providers to care for babies born alive as a result of an attempted abortion. Providers who fail to do so would face up to six years in prison. Providers who kill a baby born alive following an abortion attempt would face life in prison.

ARE ANY OF THESE PROPOSALS LIKELY TO PASS?

Assembly and Senate Republicans have scheduled hearings Tuesday on the bills, suggesting they’re on a fast-track toward floor votes. The measures have divided anti-abortion advocates, however; they say the bills aren’t tough enough. Sara Finger, executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, called the bills “politically motivated” attempts to draw attention away from proposals in Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ state budget expanding Medicaid coverage.

WHAT DOES THE GOVERNOR THINK?

Evers has already promised to veto the born-alive bill, saying current criminal penalties would apply to providers who won’t care for or kill abortion survivors. Asked about where he stands on the other bills following a news conference last week, Evers said he didn’t know what they did and refused to allow a reporter to tell him about the measures, saying he wanted to see the bills himself. Evers has said in the past he supports a woman’s right to choose. Signing any anti-abortion measure into law would spark serious questions about his loyalty to the Democratic Party.

IF EVERS ISN’T ON BOARD, WHAT’S THE POINT FOR REPUBLICANS?

It’s all about energizing the conservative base in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. Most Republican legislators face little threat from Democratic challengers since the GOP redrew district lines in 2011. But they don’t want to face primary opponents. Proposing the anti-abortion bills is a way to reassure their base that they’re true conservatives.

Wisconsin Republicans aren’t the only ones advancing anti-abortion legislation. Republicans are sending born-alive bills to liberal-leaning governors in other states, too. President Donald Trump is using the concept as a rallying cry; during an April 27 speech in Green Bay the president said he can’t believe Evers would veto legislation protecting babies; he also said Wisconsin doctors and mothers can currently decide whether to “execute” abortion survivors. Evers says doctors aren’t killing babies after failed abortions and called Trump’s remarks “blasphemy” and “horrific.”

HOW OFTEN ARE BABIES BORN ALIVE AS A RESULT OF ABORTIONS?

Very rarely. National statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 143 instances in which live births resulted from abortion attempts between 2003 and 2014. It’s unclear how many happen in Wisconsin, if they happen at all. State officials don’t track such occurrences. They say the state bans non-emergency abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy and a baby born then would be too young to survive anyway.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, one of the born-alive bill’s chief sponsors, says the lack of statistics doesn’t mean no children survive abortions in Wisconsin. Dr. Doug Laube, a Madison abortion provider and former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says live births resulting from abortions simply don’t happen in Wisconsin.


Local
La Crosse to celebrate Community Development Week

La Crosse will celebrate Community Development Week Monday through Friday with a series of events including walking tours, a coffee event and a Neighborhood Family Fun Night at Poage Park.

The week will shine a light on all the things the city of La Crosse and its partners in the community have accomplished thanks to the federal Housing and Urban Development department’s community development block grant program.

“We look forward to showing our citizens how these scarce federal resources have been wisely invested to address our most pressing community development and housing needs,” said community development administrator Caroline Gregerson.

The city has invited U.S. Rep. Ron Kind Monday to tour the Garden Terrace apartments on the 800 block of Kane Street, which was made possible in part through a $700,000 community development block grant. The project includes 50 apartments available for a range of income levels, including 15 that are set aside for homeless veterans. It also has affordable and market-rate housing.

“I am a longtime supporter of Community Development Block Grants because they’re an important tool for cities and towns here in Wisconsin — helping expand access to economic opportunity and affordable housing for Wisconsin veterans and families,” Kind said in a statement. “I look forward to touring La Crosse’s new Kane Street Garden Terrace apartments, and hearing more about how these grants are helping to redevelop our community.”

The public will get the chance to take their own tours Thursday and Friday. The La Crosse County Historical Society and Preservation Alliance of La Crosse are hosting a 10th and Cass Streets Historic Walking Tour at 3:30 and 5 p.m. Thursday, which will take people inside historic homes and teach them about the architectural history of the area.

On Friday, the city and La Crosse Promise are hosting tours of the Washburn Neighborhood at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., which will showcase the new development of La Crosse Promise Scholarship-eligible homes and the city’s housing renovation loan program, which is funded through the community development block grants.

“This funding is a partnership with the federal government that allows us to take on projects that would otherwise be impossible in the current fiscal environment. It is a vital lifeline for our city to get things done for thousands of residents at the ground level,” La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat said.

The highlight of the week is the Neighborhood Family Fun Night at 4:30 p.m. in Poage Park, 500 Hood St., Gregerson said.

The city will have free hot dogs, a bounce house, face painting and carnival games, plus music by The Three Dads Band.

Visit cityoflacrosse.org/cdbgweek for more information. Reserve a spot on one of the tours by emailing rsvp@cityoflacrosse.org.


Gregerson