ToquiNotes: Revisiting Story of When a BHS Student Realized Spirit of Christmas and Santa Claus are Real

By Jeff Toquinto on December 23, 2017 from ToquiNotes via

EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog first ran prior to last Christmas. This is one of the most beautiful stories I've had the honor of hearing and being able to write and plan to continue running it regularly on an annual basis as a reminder of the beauty of Christmas and the joy of children through the wonderful Shop for Tots Program.
Back in 1990, then Bridgeport High School senior Chad Fowler was part of another graduating class. Many may recall Fowler as a popular, kind and well-liked student who left the school as an overachieving lineman on some of Bridgeport’s best football teams.
In fact, Fowler as a junior, was a member of the 1988 Class AA state championship team that won what many consider the greatest state title game in the history of West Virginia in four overtimes against Winfield.
Some may recall him as a well-rounded student. He earned his diploma while graduating with honors.
So if you would ask Fowler about his greatest memory during his school years, it is likely many would assume it would go back to that game or his time on the football field. Some may assume his time as a student tackling an academic endeavor would top the list.
You would be wrong.
Heck, some may assume that some of Fowler’s post high school days would have implanted a memory that – to this day – he still holds as his fondest. After all, Fowler has worked in the pharmaceutical industry and for the Charlotte Hornets where he met celebrities including Ric Flair, Master P, Michael Buffer, Mia Hamm and a whole host of others along with the athletes on the NBA team. Today, he is helping turn around a university’s athletic program to glory it hasn’t seen in decades.
Again, you would be wrong.
For Fowler, outside of something involving family, there is no more meaningful time than what happened just prior to Christmas in 1988. This was during his junior year at Bridgeport when it happened.
It was unscripted. It was an emotional roller coaster. And it had a storybook ending that nearly 30 years later puts a lump in the throat of Fowler and a tear in the eye of those that hear the story.
It is the day Chad Fowler began believing once again in Santa Claus. A day he said “was the best moment I ever had in school and among the best in my life.”
Yes, it’s that strong. I think you’ll agree when you hear it.
In high school, Fowler was one of “Rowe’s kids.” In other words, he was part of the journalism classes Alice Rowe has been in charge of since what seems like the foundation of the school was put in place. Because of that, Fowler got to participate that year in the “Shop for Tots,” which sees students from the high school go on a shopping trip with elementary age students from Bridgeport that come from homes that are having some financial troubles – some mild and some severe. It’s a program still taking place and took place this past Thursday.
“I remember Alice Rowe was in charge and I remember I couldn’t wait because if you talked to anyone that had done this they always said it was their best day that year,” said Fowler. “Of course, you’re all looking forward to getting out of school, but the real treat was that you had a feeling you were going to put a smile on the faces of the kids you were with.”
Fowler said each student was assigned one child. The child had a list the parents provided of things the child needed. The students were then given money to meet as many needs as possible, got on the bus with their child and headed toward the now defunct Hill’s Department Store.
“There were rules and among them was to get the items that were most needed on the list. You also could not go over the dollar amount and you couldn’t put in any of your own money as they wanted everyone to get the same amount of items as best as possible,” said Fowler.
While Fowler was not a Park Avenue guy, he was aware of his blessings at the time. He knew there were many less fortunate than him. Still, when he got on the bus with his child, tried to get his new friend comfortable, he began to explore the list and was taken aback.
“I guess I was used to a kids’ Christmas list with at least a few toys on it. There wasn’t anything like that on this list and I was alarmed. The list had every necessity item you could think of; gloves, toboggan, a jacket and even minor things I took for granted,” said Fowler. “I still kept thinking about there not being any toys on the list, but figured we’d have enough money to get a few. When you’re that age no child just wants clothes. They want a toy or two.”
Once at Hill’s, Fowler began the item search with his child who he described as polite, but very shy and quiet. The child, he said, was happy to be with him and one of the first things he grabbed was a certain G.I. Joe action figure.
“I didn’t say much about it because I figured there would be enough in the end to get it, but right away I started adding stuff up in my head for each of the essential need items we were told to get first,” said Fowler. “We were getting the clothing and it just kept adding up and we would go past other kids and they would have baby dolls or a Star Wars figure playing with them and he was just clutching that figure. To this day, and I don’t remember that boy’s name, I can see his face so clearly with a cute little grin holding that figure and me getting literally sick to my stomach wondering if he was going to be able to get it.”
Eventually, nearly every item on the list was acquired. By that time, the money was gone. Fowler had to tell his child that they had to put this particular G.I. Joe figure, the one thing he wanted, back on the shelf.
“You could see he was hurt even though he was so nice. He was obviously upset with his facial expression, but he didn’t give me a problem,” said Fowler. “He was bummed and I felt bummed because I wanted to use my own money. We were told not to and I couldn’t find anyone in charge that I could explain this to because they were back at the school getting ready for the kids to return and visit with Santa.
“That trip back to the school wasn’t just awful, it was devastating,” Fowler continued. “What made matters worse was all the kids on the bus laughing and talking after having the time of their lives as they all had a couple of toys. He just sat real quiet beside me on the bus and I was struggling with the whole scenario.”
The day that was supposed to be “the best” he would encounter was turning into something of great dread for a teenager not used to dealing with such raw emotion. Despite that, Fowler did the best he could do.
“I told him that when we got back to the school that Santa would be there and he had a list of everyone’s name and that his name was on that list and he would get another present,” said Fowler. “He smiled a bit, but there was that youthful innocence of being hurt that was just too real to explain. I already knew that most of the toys Santa was giving out were toys that weren’t of super value, but I was just hoping it would be nice enough that he would get some satisfaction out of it.”
Once back at the school, Santa was there. He had the gifts and began calling the names.
One by one, dozens of kids were involved went up, met with Santa and got their gifts. The kids, all of who already had a toy or two, were happy with whatever they brought back whether it was a coloring book or a box of crayons.
“By this time, I had already told Alice about it and a few others and they were all devastated. At this point, there was nothing left other than to let him get a small toy to play with,” said Fowler.
Eventually, Fowler’s child was called to the front by Santa and he went up for his moment with the jolly old man. And then it happened.
This child, so well behaved yet so distraught, came running back to Fowler after meeting with Santa. His eyes, Fowler stated, said it all.
“I’ll never forget that entire moment. He sits on Santa’s lap and opens the gift. What happened from that point was, well, magic,” said Fowler. “It wasn’t pre-arranged and there was no time to make what happened, happen. It just happened.”
What happened was that gift from Santa was a toy Fowler’s child certainly wanted. In fact, it was a G.I. Joe action figure.
“It’s not just a figure, it’s the exact same one that he had in his hands the entire time we were shopping and there were a bunch of them at Hill’s. To this day, when I think of it, I still get cold chills,” said Fowler. “Everything I felt prior to that moment changed. It was the best moment I had ever experienced seeing the pure joy that was there that the kid believed Santa knew what he wanted and got it to him.”
Fowler doesn’t know what happened to his child. He can still see his face, from the moment it was torn with anguish until it ended with a look Fowler said is imprinted on his memory forever. He’d like to think the story continued with happiness.
What Fowler does know is that the moment changed him forever.
“I just cried and didn’t really care who saw me. Alice was crying, but it was a good cry,” said Fowler. “I said it then and I say it to this day because of that moment that the spirit of Christmas is real and Santa is real. I’ve seen it and lived it and no one will ever convince me that’s not the case.”
Fowler, now in his 40s and working as the new athletic director at Fairmont State University, said the moment did more than change his belief system. It changed him permanently.
“I had and still have an appreciation for my blessings because of it. I’m reminded every year of that story by Alice Rowe who sends me a message about that little boy or others bring it up; it was that powerful,” said Fowler. “That moment is part of who I am and I absolutely have no problem with it.”
Editor's Note: Chad Fowler shown speaking at a public event, which is not uncommon in his line of work, while a child is shown at a recent Shop for Tots event. In the third photo, Fowler is shown with Ric Flair during his time working with the Charlotte Hornets and after that he's shown recently with NFL official Gene Steratore.

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