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Bill Jones, 63

One day after Christmas, Ballston’s ‘Real Santa’ dies.

Bill Jones, long a Santa Claus at Ballston Common Mall, died on Jan. 26, likely of a heart attack or stroke at home. He was 63.

He lived on North Edison Street, renting the basement in the home of Shirley Rogers.

“When they got there, he was already gone,” said Sean Rogers, Shirley’s son. “It was very peaceful. We want to think it was peaceful.”

Before he became Santa, Bill Jones was for 22 years a railroad conductor. That career ended 10 years ago, when he suffered a stroke. It marked a turning point in his life, said Rogers. “From what I understand, he lived his life hard before that stroke. Bill lived two lives; I only know him from after the stroke.”

In an interview in December, Bill said he was happier after his stroke, in part because of the changes it demanded from his lifestyle. “These days, no more drinking, no more smoking. But I like it. I feel good. Yippee!”

He was not as happy immediately after the stroke. It meant he had to relearn the alphabet, learn how to speak again, and learn to move in new ways. “It was hard for a grown man,” said Sean Rogers. “When I first met him, his hand was really limp. Eventually he said, ‘Look: Strong,’ and it was the grip of a 260-pound man.”

<b>IN THE AFTERMATH</b> of the stroke, Bill met Shirley Rogers in her checkout lane at Giant. The two struck up a friendship as the former railroad man chatted up the cashier. “He would flirt with her,” said Sean Rogers. “He’s pretty good at flirting.”

She had a vacant space in her basement, and as she became friends with Bill, Shirley offered the space to him. They lived in a stage of mutual cooperation, not quite a couple, said her son.

“Days off, they would go to the doctors together, go get groceries. He would take the dogs out,” said Sean. “He was a great support to my mother, kind of a confidante.”

It was a friendship that approached family, said his sister Tracy Rogers. “It was a friendship kind of like the ‘Golden Girls,’” she said. “I don’t know if you ever watch that show. They’re all friends, but they’re also like family.”

Bill was married before his stroke, and he kept in touch with his children from that marriage — especially his son Wally, said Tracy. “They were very close,” she said. Sometimes father and son would meet at Ballston Common to sit and talk; sometimes, she said, “Wally would come over, and Bill especially liked to watch wrestling. His favorite wrestler was Hulk Hogan. He had a cat he nicknamed Hulk Hogan.”

<b>THE CHANCE TO</b> play Santa was a high point for Bill, said Sean. “He came home and said, ‘Guess what! I’m Santa!’”

In December, Bill said he was taken by surprise when he put on the Santa suit. “The first time I put on the suit … and look in the mirror? ‘My God, I’m Santy Claus.”

He looked the part, with a white beard, white hair and the build of a trim Santa. He looked so much like Santa, said Tracy Rogers, one of his neighbors on Edison believed that Santa lived across the street.

“One time, she came and brought him cookies. She thought this was the North Pole; I guess we were the elves,” she said.

As Santa, he became a fixture at Ballston, just five or so blocks from his house. But Stephanie-Shriver Engdahl, marketing director at the mall, said Bill was a regular visitor in the off season.

“Aside from being Santa Claus, he came here everyday,” she said. “He went to workout at Sport and Health. He would go to Kabuki for lunch - he used to eat sushi a lot. He would go to Starbucks in the afternoon. In between, he would visit lots of the other merchants.”

News of Bill’s death left the mall “devastated,” said Shriver-Engdahl. “He was outgoing. He was a great personality, and he could make your day, just a little exchange outside your office. I’m going to miss that, and I think that’s what most people are going to miss about Bill.”

Michael Britt, operations manager for the mall, said that when he heard about Bill’s death, “I was crushed. I loved this guy. I’ve known him for probably four years, and every time I saw him, he brought a smile to my face.”

<b>HIS SANTA SUIT</b> will be retired, she said, cleaned and given to his family, although there was some debate about a more public memorial. “We had the chair out when we heard he died,” said Shriver-Engdahl. “A lot of people wanted to do something, to leave flowers there. But you don’t want little kids to think …”

Instead, the mall made a donation to the Ronald McDonald House in Bill’s name, at the request of his family.

In addition, Sean Rogers, his family and Bill’s friends are hoping to organize an art exhibit - Bill was an artist, who had put on shows of his work at the Central Library and George Mason University.

“We’re trying to get another art show put together,” said Sean Rogers.

A family memorial service was held on Jan. 2. Bill Jones is survived by his sons Wally, of Front Royal, and Lance, of Manassas; his daughter Ginger, of Manassas; and his former wife. He is also survived by Shirley Rogers; her daughter Tracy; and Sean Rogers, his wife and son.