For Brad Usry, Santa Claus died Wednesday.
Before he was a Columbia County commissioner, Tommy Mercer for more than 25 years portrayed Santa at the Usry family’s Augusta store, Fat Man’s Forest.
Mercer, 70, died Wednesday evening after a brief hospitalization.
Funeral arrangements for Mercer were held Saturday. In addition to his wife, Brenda, he is survived by seven children and 10 grandchildren.
Fat Man’s previous Santa had just retired “around 1980,” Usry recalled, and Mercer walked in before the store could start searching for a replacement.
“Tommy came to me and said, ‘Brad, I don’t want to make any money, I just want to be with the kids,’” Usry recalled. “It was just like God sent Tommy to us.”
Along with his wife, Brenda, portraying Mrs. Claus, Mercer “played Santa until the bitter end; until Fat Man’s closed the doors,” Usry said.
After passing out at work and nearly dying – the family isn’t sure why – Mercer started dressing up as Santa because he was thankful to still be alive to celebrate Christmas, said his youngest son, Trent.
“He said he was almost not there to share it with everybody.”
Each Christmas, starting after Thanksgiving, Mercer portrayed Santa at Fat Man’s and at area schools, until difficulties with diabetes and congestive heart failure forced him to retire the suit, Trent said. Still, after heart bypass surgery in 2001, he invited one family to come to his hospital room so they wouldn’t miss their annual Santa photo.
In street clothes, however, Mercer best was known for the two terms he served on the Columbia County Commission, from 2000 to 2008, in which his signature achievement was the county’s indoor-smoking ban.
“He believed in fighting for what he thought was right, without question,” said Trey Allen, who succeeded Mercer in the District 2 seat after Mercer asked him to run.
“I had nothing but the greatest respect for him.”
Mercer could display a fiery temper, as exemplified recently in his public opposition to Augusta Prep’s rezoning request for lighting its football stadium adjacent to his Springlakes home. But he also was a man of “renowned generosity,” Allen said.
In addition to helping to support the widow and family of a former colleague, Mercer frequently and anonymously paid for meals and purchases for uniformed service members and emergency personnel.
“If he was in a restaurant, or just in a Circle K, if he saw them buying coffee behind him, he would pay for them and they never knew,” Allen said. “He was just all heart.”
That compassion extended to Columbia County government employees, to whom Mercer routinely sent birthday wishes or delivered goodies. Even after his time in office, Mercer advocated on their behalf when he famously visited a 2010 county commission meeting in which pay for county employees was being discussed and told quarreling commissioners, “Give ’em a damn raise.”
Born in Lakeworth, Fla., Mercer grew up in the “Pinch Gut” area of Augusta and attended Richmond Academy, where he was a star athlete – especially in baseball, participating on the state championship team in 1957. He graduated in 1959.
“He’s such a good fellow. I’ve known him since we were kids,” said former county commissioner and state senator Jim Whitehead, who graduated from Richmond Academy a year after Mercer.
The two played sports together from childhood through high school. Whitehead went on to the University of Georgia on a football scholarship, while Mercer went to work at The Augusta Chronicle and Augusta Herald after graduation and continued to play baseball in Augusta’s amateur leagues.
After his playing days were over, Mercer long served as a baseball and football official for area high school games.
Mercer was hired at Augusta’s Procter and Gamble plant in 1964, and retired in 1996.
Mercer served for several years as chairman of Columbia County’s Board of Health, paving the way for the county to build the new Health Department and Animal Services facilities on William Few Parkway. Mercer helped cut the ribbons last year as both facilities opened, Allen noted.
In his later years, Mercer suffered from heart problems, diabetes and the back trouble that first robbed him of his ability to play golf, and then forced his final trip to the hospital.
But even to the end, Mercer was tenacious.
“He stood up for so many things,” Whitehead said. “Even in his frail body, Tommy felt like he would fight a buzz-saw if it was the right thing to do.”