Although he worked behind the scenes, his official job was significant enough: facilities maintenance manager of Columbus State University’s RiverPark campus.
But most folks knew him as CSU’s Santa Claus, spreading Christmas cheer, or as the Candy Man who zipped around Uptown on a Segway as his sleigh, giving away Smarties and smiles throughout the year
Sonny Fitzpatrick’s long white beard reached his heart — and that beard was as real as the uplifting impact he left on the hearts of those who knew him.
Fitzpatrick died Sunday after his heart stopped working as he collapsed at his West Point, Ga., home the day before he was scheduled to have aortic valve replacement surgery. He was 66.
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CSU president Chris Markwood called Fitzpatrick “a good man.” His daughter was among the countless kids blessed to meet the man whose nickname could have been appropriately spelled “Sunny.” Her face would light up when Fitzpatrick reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of candy for her.
The gesture meant more to those kids than a sweet treat.
“He noticed them,” Markwood said, “and they felt special and they felt important.”
Fitzpatrick spread affirming feelings even without candy. Periodically, he sent the CSU president messages to remind him that he was praying for him and his family.
“He was a man of faith,” Markwood said, “and he wasn’t afraid to share it.”
Steve Morse, the senior director of university support services at CSU, worked with Fitzpatrick for about 15 years, including a stint as his supervisor.
Fitzpatrick’s responsibility at CSU grew along with the RiverPark campus, from three properties to 14. He managed a staff of eight.
“Sonny was a man of good character,” Morse said. “He was a doer. He made sure the job was done to the best of his ability, as well as his staff. He stayed there until he got the job done, and he always was available, night or day.
“There wasn’t a person down on that campus who didn’t know Sonny Fitzpatrick. Sonny never told you no; he told you how he was going to get it done. He loved the staff and the students, and he showed that through his work.”
And he showed that through his Santa Claus gigs. They started about six or seven years ago, Morse said, when CSU’s police department needed a Santa to visit the local Ronald McDonald House and hospitals to help distribute donated toys.
Fitzpatrick also portrayed Santa during CSU’s Winterfest, the university’s annual Christmas season celebration, where hundreds of kids took turns sitting on his lap.
“Sonny loved children, loved people,” Morse said. “He loved to make people happy. He really saw that as an opportunity to come into folks’ lives.”
Fitzpatrick found additional opportunities beyond CSU. Three years ago, Morse said, an apartment complex fire displaced 18 families, and Fitzpatrick ensured Santa still brought them Christmas gifts.
“He spent about 2½ hours that night and spoke to every child there,” Morse said, “probably 20 or 22 children. ... “But he was Santa no matter what time of the year.”
In fact, Morse said, just last week, Fitzpatrick texted him a request to print another batch of business cards that declare him as CSU’s Santa Claus.
“They’re probably still sitting at the print shop now,” Morse said.
Kelly Wilson, CSU’s director of maintenance and construction, was Fitzpatrick’s supervisor. She recalled another request that summed up his essence: When it came time for their department to get new uniforms a few years ago, Fitzpatrick asked for cargo pants so he could have more pockets to carry the candy he handed out.
“He did a whole lot of stuff in the background,” Wilson said. “No matter how tough it got, the man always had a smile on his face. He always had a positive attitude. He never said a negative thing about anybody.”
Ross Horner, president and CEO of Uptown Columbus and the Business Improvement District, said, “Sonny took great care of so many things in the Uptown Campus, and he was especially fond of Woodruff Park. It is a beautiful place to congregate because of his attention to detail and love of our community. We all will miss seeing him make his daily rounds and check-ins throughout the day in Uptown.”
Those close to him knew Fitzpatrick was “having a little bit of health issues,” Morse said, “but he was at work on Friday. We had no clue he would be gone come Sunday. It’s devastating to the CSU family.”
Fitzpatrick’s wife of 31 years, Shirley, emphasized that his generous and soaring spirit didn’t stop when he took off the Santa suit or his CSU maintenance uniform. He served on the board of his church, Calvary Family Worship Center in Valley, where he was a lay minister and helped maintain the building and run the nursery.
“That was him,” said Shirley, who works in the claims department at Aflac. “He was jolly, happy, loving, caring.”
He graduated from Greensboro (Ga.) High School and Athens Area Technical College, then worked in maintenance at Master Lock in Auburn for 17 years before serving CSU for 16 years.
Fitzpatrick also is survived by his children, Monica (Adan) Gonzalez, Jamey (Megan) Fitzpatrick and Manda (Burt) Toney, along with 13 grandchildren and several siblings.
A celebration of his life will be conducted Saturday, starting at 2 p.m. EDT, at the Calvary Family Worship Center in Valley, Ala. His family will receive friends at the church that day, starting at 1 p.m., during the hour before the service.