Magic on the Danville Square
James Walker overcame obstacles and shares the Christmas spirit playing the Jolly Old Elf
By Stephanie Dolan
For 13 years, kids have flocked to the Historic Danville Square to share their Christmas wish lists with James Rockford “Rocky” Walker. As the famous Christmas figure who wears red and white and has a giant belly laugh, he knows a little something about Christmas spirit.
While he’s now busy spreading Christmas cheer as Santa, things weren’t always so magical for Danville’s favorite Christmas elf.
“I was born and raised in the hills of glorious West Virginia,” he said. “My father died when I was seven, and I was shipped up here to live with my sister. My oldest sister pretty much raised me. She’s been my mother.” Walker is the middle child of nine, but two of his siblings have now passed away.
He received a scholarship to Herron Art School but ended up graduating from Indiana Wesleyan University with a degree in business. Still, that accolade wasn’t enough to keep Walker from falling on hard times.
“I was homeless for about nine months due to a bad relationship and losing my job,” he said. “I lost everything.” Eating whatever he could grab, he lived under a bridge near 10th and Delaware streets in Indianapolis not knowing what the days might bring. “If you went to the mission, you had to listen to their message to get a meal,” Walker said. “I didn’t want to hear it. I thought, ‘How could God love me?’”
But a 19-year-old young man was intent on turning Walker’s life around and met him where he was, giving him food, sharing the Gospel message and inviting Walker to church. Walker refused at first because he was homeless.
“He said it didn’t matter,” Walker said. “I went one Thursday evening, and everything changed from that point on.”
He found a job and an apartment he could afford near 16th and Delaware streets.
“I started rebuilding after that,” he said.
Over the course of the next decade, Walker attended church regularly, ultimately getting hired as a street evangelist for Lynhurst Baptist Church.
“I spent my days on the street talking to people in the community — businesses, fire departments, police departments, the treasurer and Wayne Township offices — making contact with all of them and helping people through a food pantry that the church had,” Walker said.
Soon after Walker started working for the church, the organization purchased an abandoned nursing home. Walker moved his office there, opening up another food pantry for the community. “The first thing I did was start giving away bread,” he said. “Now it’s thriving as a community center.”
That ministry got Walker back on his fee, but his path led him elsewhere.
“I was not called to be a pastor of a church,” Walker said. “Now, I’m a truck driver. I have many more opportunities in the tri-state area to pass out bibles at truck stops. All the things I did for the church, I now do on the road.
Even though Walker spends 60 hours a week on the road, he still manages to find time to give back to the Danville community that means so much to him.
Thirteen years ago, his work hours had been cut, leaving him a free Friday afternoon.
“Someone had just given me a Santa suit,” he said. “I thought, ‘Let’s just see what happens. I’ll go out and wave at somebody.’ It was a thrill. Everyone was happy to see Santa on the square.” Despite the warm feeling, his cheap Santa suit left him chilly.
“My wife Mary bought me another Santa suit,” Walker said. “It grew from there to hot chocolate and stuffed animals and toys for the kids.”
He takes donations of clean or new stuffed animals for kids. “I’ve got regulars that have been providing that now for five years,” he said. Anyone can bring their donations to him on the Square during Santa’s office hours.
“The people of Danville have become accustomed to seeing him on that corner, and it brings such joy to people to see that,” said Marcia Lynch, Danville Chamber of Commerce executive director. “He is such a great steward for the town, and it’s so much fun to have him there. He gives back to the community so much.”
To keep the spirit of St. Nick in full swing, Mary is Walker’s chauffeur. She drops him off “incognito” so nobody knows where he comes from.
“She picks me up when it’s all over, makes sure the animals are clean and don’t have any rips or tears,” Walker said. “She’s a good egg. She’d do whatever I ask of her.”
Kids can find Walker playing Santa on the Square in Danville every weekend from 6 to 8 p.m. until Christmas Eve. If they can’t make it during those hours, stop by the mailbox and drop in a letter to Santa.
“Seeing the faces of the kids is the best part,” he said. “The faces of the kids reaching in the bag and pulling out a toy and finding what they want is pretty cool.”
Nine-month-old Cameron Birt 9 gets his first visit with Santa. He and his mom Daylene Birt from Indianapolis came to the Danville Square to see him.
Walker sets up at Washington and Main streets, which is always well maintained thanks to the Town of Danville.
Sofie Hendricks, 6, shares her secrets with Santa. She’s the daughter of April Hendricks of Plainfield.
(Photos by Faith Toole)
“Danville is a great little town,” he said. “The town council got approval to mount a Santa mailbox on the Square. A couple of years ago we started doing letters from Santa. The Kiwanis do that for me. There’s a lot of people involved now. It’s not just a fat guy on the corner in a red suit.”
Do you have any pets? I have three dogs, Chloe, Annie and Kizzie, and three cats, Bella, Mooshie and Kiki. People do bring their dogs to see Santa. I try to have a little thing of dog bones there so they can have a little treat.
What is your favorite TV show? “The Waltons.” Coming from a busted family, they held it together through everything, and it made me feel like I was part of something.
What is your favorite movie? “The Wizard of Oz,” I watch it once a month, at least.
What have you read most recently? I can’t remember the title, but it was a book by Phil Robertson from “Duck Dynasty.” I also read my bible everyday. Couldn’t make it without it.
What do you do to relax? I like to draw, and I like to write, and I just threw out the idea on Facebook asking if I had enough support to write a children’s book, and it was an overwhelming yes. A Christmas children’s book is what I had in mind.