By John Hassell Yeatts © 1983
Issue: December, 1983
Only his chin whiskers were missing. His silver-gray hair and heavy, grey mustache blended with his light blue eyes to give his sunny face the countenance, for all the world, that Old Kris Kringle might have had if he had ever chosen to appear in public with a clean shaven chin and neck. His sensitive mouth, however, usually contained the stub of an unlit cigar instead of a curved-stem pipe with curling smoke. Actually he never smoked at all. One imported cigar a day was carefully masticated by him and spat away, usually outdoors. One other major difference was, that he never traveled by sleigh to make his rounds. He depended upon his son-in-law, Jesse Caldwell and other close friends to drive him through the deserted streets of Radford on Christmas Eve to deliver his white stuffed stockings to scores of children whose prospects for the holiday were anything but merry. He also walked to some places where automobiles could not go.
He worked from his own list and in his own way. Most of the people on his list never knew the source of their gifts. But a few of us who were privileged to his secrets and came to love the kindly little gentleman, called him the "Santa of Downey St." The one who worked without a sleigh. His name was Arthur Roberts and he was born in June, 1865 in Central Depot - now Radford, Virginia. He joined the Norfolk and Western Railroad, then known as the A.M. & O. Railroad in November 1883, at the age of 18. Some 52 years later, at age 70, he retired from his position as Yardmaster in Radford.
I first met him in his interesting and spacious back yard, a woolen shawl drawn tightly around his still straight shoulders, sitting in the March wind patiently awaiting the arrival of his beloved Blue Martins from South America. They were needed to provide insurance against mosquitoes for still another summer. Furthermore, they were expected to be on time. He squinted into the southwestern sky and mumbled, "I reckon they won't be here until tomorrow." I had been sent there by his wee, lovely wife, Miss Lucy, to stand inspection and determine if I might occupy a room on the 2nd floor of their sumptuous brick and brown stone house which stood at 1120 Downey St. in Radford. He carefully sized me up, and after learning that I admired Martins, knew a smattering about railroads and enjoyed fishing, the room became temporarily mine. Before very long I was feeling and functioning like a member of the family; one of the finest families it has ever been my good fortune to know and love.
Poppa R., as he was called by his numerous grandchildren, and I soon became close friends. The half century difference in our ages presented no noticeable obstacles. I began to learn everything I could about this remarkable fellow. He had accepted compulsory retirement at age 70 with a lump in his throat and a heavy heart. He still had the energy and the will. But 70 was it. Running the big and important yard at Radford had become his world - his life. It wasn't growing old so much that he minded as leaving the excitement and stimulating sights, sounds, and smells of a bustling train yard. To make matters even worse, a world war was fast approaching and Radford was about to become one of the most important train yards in the Southeast, in America's rearmament effort. Then there was added the inescapable fact that from his attic window he could watch the rumble and the stir and sometimes smell the smoke of the locomotives. Somehow he had to find other interests, other fun. He immediately began construction on a large housing project for his favorite birds, Blue Martins. they showed their appreciation by accepting full occupancy, then there was time to be spent keeping the sparrows from taking over. He entered into friendly competition with Miss Lucy to grow the finest vegetable garden in Montgomery County. They were the envy of the block. Camping on New River had long been one of his favored ways of spending his summer vacations. He expanded this activity in size and time, and was soon accommodating many additional friends. And he also turned some of his attention to assuring a happy Christmas each year for hundreds of Radford's underprivileged children. He would listen to the screams of the steam locomotives as they raced toward Norfolk pulling their cargos of coal, steel and ammunition, but he wouldn't waste time "remembering and hurting."
When the Roberts moved back to their house from their spacious tent camp on Little River in early Autumn, Poppa R. would become a familiar figure walking the several blocks to downtown department stores, yard stick in hand. He would shop, measure, dicker for volume prices and measure again. He wanted the biggest, the strongest, and the most attractive cotton stockings he could find. Always white. Then he had his purchase of candy, nuts, fruits and small toys delivered to his wide latticed back porch where he made his workshop. There, without allowing any help, he carefully assorted, counted, stitched and decorated. His finished store Of stockings might have easily been mistaken for birch fire logs stacked upon the porch.
The number of his "kiddies", the cost of his operation and countless other details of his one-man generosity were secrets known only to Poppa R. They had to be substantial. But on Christmas morning instead of looking financially and physically exhausted, he wore a grin that might have been the composite smile of a dozen children. And his step was light and spry as he moved from room to room on the first floor lighting candles, plugging lights and making final arrangements of the holiday decorations. Soon Miss Lucy and other family members would be arising. Before very long the musical door chimes would announce the arrival of more of his children and grandchildren. The house would suddenly become filled with the warm sounds of love and laughter. Once more Christmas with its many meanings had returned to 1120 Downey St. for a one week's visit.