Coquitlam Centre's Santa Val will be missed

Popular Coquitlam mall Santa has passed away; leaves behind a legacy of thousands of holiday Christmas photos with Tri-City children

Val Comba Johnson will always be remembered as Santa Val by legions of children who sat on his lap and told him their Christmas wishes.

A local treasure whose photograph and words of wisdom were published in The Tri-City News a number of times over the years, Johnson died Jan. 12 at the age of 72.

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Santa Val was one of the more popular Santas who worked at Coquitlam Centre over the holiday season, getting his photo taken tens of thousands of times over the years, with the result that his cheerful face is likely stored in hundreds of family photo albums, said Craig Hodge, a Coquitlam city councillor, who worked with Johnson for 12 years as a photographer.

"Sitting on Santa Val’s knee was like travelling to the North Pole and meeting the real Santa, and I’m sure those visits kept the magic of Christmas alive for extra years for many children," said Hodge, noting that his family has photos of Santa Val in their holiday collection.

Johnson's Christmas spirit was legendary, his son, Aaron Johnson recalls, and families would come back year after year to have their picture taken with Santa Val.

"One family has 18 years of photographs taken with him," he said.

The younger Johnson said his father loved the holiday season even though it meant being away from his family a lot.

"In that regards, it was a tough schedule for him but he kept doing it because he liked getting the reaction from the children. He never complained at all, he never complained about crying children, he lived for the one or two children he saw every year that gave him such great joy."

According to a story in The Tri-City News in 2008, Santa Val appeared in more than 10,000 pictures and hosted at least 20,000 people on their laps in a single holiday season and, over his lifetime, it was estimated that Johnson had close to a quarter of a million people sit on his knee.

"You have to really love children. You have to want to talk to them and, more importantly, you have to want to listen to them and pay attention to them, almost to the exclusion of everybody else," said Johnson, who was a retired Pacific Press circulation route manager.

Santa Val leaves behind his wife Jeanette and four children — Katrina, Aaron, Kyle and Nadja — as well as 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

• The funeral will be held Saturday, Jan. 28 at 2 p.m., at the Boal Chapel and Memorial Gardens, 1505 Lillooet Rd., North Vancouver.

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