In the distance you can hear jingle bells echoing through the store. As they start to grow louder, you see Santa greeting parents and children in line. The look of pure excitement beams from the faces of the children. They’ve been looking forward to this magical moment all week long. The parents are equally excited, because they too saw this exact same Santa at Hi-School Pharmacy when they were children.
All this Christmas joy started in 1983 with Carl Mills. Originally, Carl did home events where he would represent Santa at family parties. Merlyn “Swede” Swedburg, a representative for the photo processing company Hi-School Pharmacy worked with, had asked Carl if he would start doing events at the Hi-School stores. For the first year in 1983, Carl had 6 stores he would visit as Santa’s surrogate. He caught pneumonia halfway through and asked his son Bob to step in for him. Swede asked Bob to come back the next year, since not only did they look nearly identical but he was a perfect fit for the role! He asked Bob to help for the 1984 event since they decided to double their store visits to 12.
Bob and Carl would work the Santa Pictures events, since often there would be two stores needing one of Santa’s helpers at a time. This continued for 5 or 6 years until Carl decided to step away from the events. Barbara Mills, Bob’s wife, made Santa’s suit from scratch. She remakes a new suit every 5 years due to the wear from kids climbing up and off his lap for pictures. The belt buckles and belts were handmade in the 80s – the belt buckles are made from wood by Carl and the leather belts are made by a close friend. Those original belts and belt buckles are still used by Santa today!
The two would go to Hi-School Pharmacies across Washington and Oregon, sometimes reaching up to 18 stores in a two week period. Many scrapbooks were gifted to Bob over the years from families, with pictures of their children from babies to teenagers – and those same teenagers returning as adults with their kids. For some customers, they’ve had as many as three generations take pictures with either Carl or Bob Mills! Carl has held the record between the father/son duo for youngest person photographed… a 6 hour old baby at the original Vancouver Hi-School Pharmacy store on Main Street.
When Bob decides to retire his role, it will leave a huge void in the Hi-School Pharmacy family. We believe the Mills family has provided a priceless community service for all of us, and moving forward, the expectations will be huge.