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Fargo man known for playing mall Santa Claus dies at 88

Palmer Forness. Forum file photo1 / 3
Palmer Forness, portraying Santa Claus at West Acres in 1981. Special to the Forum2 / 3
Palmer Forness. Special to the Forum3 / 3

FARGO- A Fargo man known for portraying Santa Claus at West Acres Shopping Center died Thursday, July 5, at Bethany Retirement Living.

But Palmer Forness, 88, was more than a mall Santa. He was a Fargo firefighter, a Korean War veteran, a writer and a father with a will to make a difference in the world.

Known for his compassion, Forness lived his life focused on impacting others.

After 26 years at the Fargo Fire Department, Forness set out to fulfill his desire of helping young people. Upon retirement, he began working with the Fargo Youth Commission and developed a youth runaway program.

Forness was an active member of Pontoppidan Lutheran Church in north Fargo, where he taught Sunday school, lead Boy Scouts and worked with young kids.

He also married his wife of 59 years, Beulah Olson, at Pontoppidan. The two raised seven children together.

Passionate about preserving history, Forness was a part of the conception of Bonanzaville in West Fargo. He restored a number of log cabins within the pioneer village, including the Forness Cabin, in memory of his father, and Fargo's First House.

Forness also enjoyed writing. Born and raised in Fargo, he cherished his childhood, eventually writing a number of books about his memories growing up in the area. Before it was torn down, Forness could often be found writing and drinking coffee at the downtown Fargo Hardee's restaurant.

In his later years, Forness's spirit of giving was seen through his portrayal of Santa Claus at West Acres in the '80s, a character he played for nearly 10 years.

A former mall colleague, Brad Schlossman, CEO of West Acres development, said the world would be a better place if we were all a little bit more like Palmer Forness.

"He was everything you would want in Santa Claus," Schlossman said. "He took the role seriously because he truly cared about the children that would come visit him. That's what is so amazing about him."

Forness's son, Morgan Forness, said he and his six siblings would often hear about the special experiences people had at the mall with their father.

"A unique thing about his representation of Santa Claus was that it wasn't so much about the commercialized portrayal," Morgan said. "He wasn't the 'ho-ho-ho' Santa, he was the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of giving and sharing that love with others."

His love for the simple things, the joy of the outdoors, the joy of laughing, the joy of something as simple as a campfire or playing in the snow is what made Forness a special dad. He just wanted to make a difference in the world, Morgan said.

Of all the memories Morgan shared with his dad, one memory that sticks out the most happened during the 1997 flood. Morgan was the principal of Oak Grove High School in Fargo at the time.

"I remember after Oak Grove flooded, he met me on Oak Street," Morgan said. "We had an emotional meeting there after we realized the school was lost. He just gave me a hug and said, 'Everything will be okay. It can all be rebuilt.'"

Forness died peacefully at Bethany Retirement Living, where he had been living for the past six months, Morgan said. It is the family's understanding that he had a heart attack before he died.

The funeral will be at 3 p.m. Tuesday, July 10, at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church in Harwood, N.D.