Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Discovering the magic of Santa in a small Minnesota town in March March 25, 2015

PEEF, THE MULTI-COLORED TEDDY BEAR created from the imagination of writer Tom Hegg and brought to visual life by artist Warren Hanson, has always held a special place in my heart. Because of my boy, who is no longer a boy but a young adult.

For his eighth birthday, Caleb's sisters created a PEEF cake for their brother.

For his eighth birthday, Caleb’s sisters created a PEEF cake for their brother.

Caleb loved his Beanie Baby-sized PEEF. Slept with the bear. Hugged him. Pressed his patchwork tummy over and over so the bear would squeak.

And then one day PEEF disappeared. Lost. Perhaps fallen from the van on a trip to Grandma’s house. Perhaps… I really have no idea what happened to this fur-roughened-by-little-boy-hands bear.

Somewhere, though, the first two PEEF children’s picture books are tucked away in a box in my house. Autographed during an author visit to Faribault in which Caleb posed for a picture with an over-sized patchwork bear. The location of that photo also eludes me.

PEEF The Christmas Bear reveals how the colorful bear came to be and how he also became Santa’s helper and friend.

This sign shows the artwork for the first PEEF book's cover with local Chad Winsell  as the Santa model.

This sign shows the artwork for the first PEEF book’s cover with local Chad Winsell as the Santa model.

Not until this past Saturday did I learn, though, that the model for that first PEEF book hails from West Concord, a rural southeastern Minnesota community of nearly 800. A sign attached to a chain link fence outside the town’s former school, now turned West Concord Historical Society and Community Center, identifies this town as the home of PEEF’s Santa, Chad Winsell.

Historical Society Director Janis Ray, who seems a reliable go-to source for all things West Concord, explained that Chad was friends with PEEF’s creators, thus became the inspiration for Santa. Chad definitely has that Santa look, that sparkle in his eyes.

Michael "Chad" Winsell. Photo from obituary published by Michaelson Funeral Home.

Michael “Chad” Winsell. Photo from obituary published by Michaelson Funeral Home.

On November 18, 2014, Chad, whose real name was Michael, died after living with a brain tumor for 14 years. He was only 64. When I read his obituary, I understood that this man was more than a model for a book. He modeled the spirit of goodness and kindness and generosity that defines Santa. And for a community to recognize that serves to remind all of us that no matter where you live, who you are, you are valued.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photo of Michael “Chad” Winsell from the Michaelson Funeral Home website


20 Responses to “Discovering the magic of Santa in a small Minnesota town in March”

  1. 01rena Says:

    What adorable memories!. Caleb is obviously in the “enraptured zone” by his sisters’ display of love and service to him. Perhaps the lesson here is to cherish these brief and endearing moments while they last, and to make as many of them as is within our control. We must seek ways to bless others in these little ways. Just as Saint Therese said, “Do small things, with great love.” (Yes, mother Teresa said it too – she modeled her life after Saint Therese.) It’s really the small things that makes a difference, isn’t it?

  2. Almost Iowa Says:

    No matter what we believe about the hereafter, we still have to answer the question, “So what did you do with your life?”

    This man can say, “I gave joy to children.”

    It doesn’t get much better than that.

    He does have a twinkle in his eye, doesn’t he?

  3. Beautiful – love your last sentence 🙂 Happy Hump Day!

  4. Sad that Winsell died so young. (Sixty-four seems younger all the time, doesn’t it?) I was not familiar with Peef, but I love the cake your girls made. How special that was.

  5. hotlyspiced Says:

    Great post, Audrey. I love the bear and I’m so sad you no longer have it. The cake your daughters made for their brother is gorgeous! And the colours are so true to the original bear. How sad to live with a brain tumor for all those years and then die at a relatively young age – tragic! xx

  6. Jackie Says:

    I have never heard of a PEEF bear, but he sure is cute. My mom is about 12 years older than Chad would have been, she said she didnt know him, but has “heard the name” 🙂 Interesting post Audrey, fun to read these fun things about my mom’s home town.

  7. I didn’t know PEEF had a MN connection! You are educating us all! (Sweet story about your son!)

  8. Beth Ann Says:

    I had never even heard of PEEF! You learn something new every day. I have a bin full of Beanie Babies….a huge one. 🙂

  9. Nan Says:

    How sweet to read your article and the keen comments about my husband! Lucky me! He did affect many people positively, in life, and now beyond!

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