Jim Emery, of Belle Fourche, was Santa for many years at Storybook Island. Emery is seen here on Friday night, Dec. 9, 2011 with his reindeer at Storybook Island. Emery received a kidney transplant in October. (Kristina Barker/Journal staff)

Now that he's feeling so well, Santa has big plans to rebuild his reindeer herd.

"Santa," in this case, is Belle Fourche resident Jim Emery, whose failing kidneys forced him to reduce his large herd of reindeer to just five animals this year. That's not enough to even fill one verse of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but because Emery was so sick and on dialysis treatment three days a week, it was all he could handle.

But thanks to a kidney transplant at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, Emery is feeling great and back in the reindeer raising business. The man who has portrayed Santa Claus in and around Belle Fourche for the last 35 years once again has the energy he needs to wrangle not only Rudolph, but also Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, and Donner and Blitzen, too.

"I feel great," Emery said earlier this month while unloading two reindeer at Storybook Island for their annual appearance at the Rapid City children's theme park that is wrapped in twinkling Christmas lights through Dec. 31.

It was Dancer and Prancer who got the nod to perform at Storybook Island this year. "Rudolph is still at home," Emery said.

That was abundantly clear to 5-year-old Hailey Fortune, who knew perfectly well that neither of the reindeers staring out at Storybook Island visitors from their pen near the Birthday House on a cold December night was the famous red-nosed one. And she quickly decided to stay clear of Dancer - or maybe it was Prancer - since the animal was tossing a large rack of reindeer horns at Dave Nelson as he helped his friend Emery unload them from a trailer. Nelson came along to make sure that Emery didn't take a horn in his newly-healed surgical incision. "I didn't want him to get gored by an antler," Nelson said.

Hailey thought that was a good idea, too. "I'm not touching the crazy one," she said of the rambunctious reindeer.

Emery will need a full contingent of well-behaved reindeer for Christmas 2012, when he hopes to offer a big "thank-you" to Sanford Health, where his successful kidney transplant was performed Oct. 18, by taking his reindeer to Sioux Falls to be enjoyed by hospitalized children there.

"I'm hoping to do a bunch for Sanford next year. To say thanks," he said. "I promised them by then I'd have the long hair and the full beard back."

As for his own Christmas wish list, Emery got the gift he wanted about 18 months earlier than expected. His new kidney was a cadaver donation that was a perfect match.

"That's enough. That's all I want," he said of the organ that has freed him from four hours of dialysis three times a week.

He had minor surgery on Dec. 22 to remove an abdominal stent, but his blood work shows the organ is doing exactly what it should. "My numbers are all good, right where they should be," he said.

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Less than two months post operative, his doctors advised him that he was not quite ready to don a red suit and hold small children on his knees for hours at a time, however.

Emery's transplant story, and the fact that he would have to forgo playing Santa Claus for the first time in 35 years, made news in Fort Worth, Texas, where Elson Perez heard about it on a Spanish language broadcast.

Elson helped his four sisters, ages 12, 11, 7 and 3, send their Santa letters to Emery this year, wishing him continued good health and a speedy return to his sleigh.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com


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