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Nov. 20, 2018
6:36 am


Santa by any other name: Derek Dugan gives back 365 days a year

By Pamela A. Keene
Just call him Santa, no matter the season, because even when Derek Dugan isn’t patiently listening to the Christmas wishes of children in North Georgia, he’s busy giving back to children’s charities and supporting worthy causes.
From his time growing up as an Air-Force kid – born in England, living in Japan before moving to Florida where he finished high school – he’s always had a giving heart. His broad career experiences from caricature artist and restaurant manager to nurse, corporate advertising executive, medical illustrator and freelance graphic design/marketing consultant equipped him well to share his talents while helping others.
“I was the first male nurse at Altamonte Springs Hospital in the Florida Hospital System back in the early 1980s,” Dugan said. “And during those four years I married, had a child and volunteered to take care of one of the first AIDS patients in Florida. I guess I’ve always been a caregiver in one way or another.”
His gentle spirit and big heart was tested to the limits when his younger brother Dale became seriously ill with a rare form of cancer that eventually took his life seven years ago. Dugan took time away from home to care for Dale over a six-month period.
“It still seems like it was just yesterday that I lost my best friend and also ended up losing a job I was passionate about,” he said. “Here I was in my late 50s with no college, self-taught except for on-the-job training. I went through a tough time just trying to find answers.”
Before all that, Dugan, his second wife Kim and their combined family of three children had moved to the Atlanta area following Derek’s career. “We arrived in July 1996, just before the Olympics,” he said. “That in itself was an experience all its own.”
Coming to the lake
By the early 2000s, after the kids graduated from Parkview High School, he and Kim sold their house in Lilburn to move to a community near Lake Lanier. He also became active in the motorcycle community while he was the director of marketing and promotions on staff for the motorcycle magazine “Full Throttle.” Through that gig he became good friends with a group of motorcycle riders who also rode and raised money for charity. Members of that organization formed the basis of Silent Partners of Lanier, the original group that created the early Pirates of Lanier Poker Run.
“I met Rea Williams, Steve Damus and a couple of the other original Silent Partners guys and I volunteered to design the group’s first poster,” Dugan said. “There were so many blessings in all those early days and I was so fortunate to get to meet Rea and Steve and find a purpose and a way to share my talents.”
Steve Damus, Rea Williams, Robert Campbell, Dan Gordon, Phil Powell and Dugan were the original founders of Lanier Partners, and the original board members that made up the group. Dugan remained a board member for two years and continued to contribute over the next few years in various roles. “All of those guys were like a brotherhood, and their work to help the community came right from their hearts. Lanier Partners gave me that sense of purpose I needed.”
He and Williams worked closely together each year to develop all the marketing materials, website, promotional items and handle many of the day-to-day details of putting on the Pirates of Lanier Poker Run as it grew to be the largest charity poker run in the United States. When Williams was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 the pair continued to work side-by-side with the expanding board.
“When we lost Rea, it was a loss not only for all of us who loved and respected him, but for the community as well,” Dugan said. “I’m so pleased to see that the Pirates of Lanier Family Poker Run is still going strong with its leadership and current board.”
Becoming Santa
Meanwhile, Dugan found a second way to give back to others. “Back in the 1980s, I dressed as Santa for the nursing home where my mom was living and presented gifts with my wife and children. It was amazing,” he said. “Several years later I interviewed for a set manager/production job with a company in Colorado, but the woman interviewing me said, ‘You can’t be a set manager for us. You have to be Santa.’ I guess with my long white hair and long white beard, she had a point. So, 48 hours later in around 2012, I was headed to South Carolina to be a holiday Santa.”
In the evenings, in a strange town away from family, Dugan started writing down his experiences with the children, families and older people who came to see him with their wishes and dreams. “I really let the stories tell themselves and then just posted them on Facebook,” he said. “It really helped me realize the calling I’ve accepted of helping people and giving back.”
After his first season, his youngest daughter made them into a book for him. “As I read over those stories even today it takes me right back there,” he said. “With all I’ve gone through, it makes me realize that God put me in just the place I needed to be.”
Dugan was recently chosen over 300 submissions to be illustrated and included in a new children’s book that will be published in 2018. The book is being written and illustrated by Russell Ince, creator of several Santa Secrets’ books published and available to the public.
“For me being chosen over all of the men I have been mentored by and admire provides validation of my contributions and journey,” he said. While he cannot divulge the story line or name of the book per contract agreements, the link between two major forces in the universe will become apparent. “It’s an honor to represent and keep the spirit alive.”
For the fourth season Dugan has been Santa at Lanier Islands. He’s there every day throughout the season, both at Brunch with Santa at Sidney’s in the lodge and at Holiday Village.
“I don’t play Santa,” he said. “I AM Santa when it comes to promoting the season and goodwill, and it’s one of the greatest gifts in the world to be part of the continuing legacy, the keeper, representing the true spirit of Christmas.”
His wish for people all year long? “Take a deep breath and just appreciate all the gifts we’ve been given. Follow the Golden Rule; it’s not such a complex concept.”
Dugan’s Facebook page is

‘Riding by Christmas Lights’ brings holiday cheer for a good cause; New song debuts at Boat Parade of Lights December 9 at Lanier Islands

For his special-needs son’s 16th birthday two years ago, singer-songwriter Chip Hullender traded his motorcycle for a golf cart. That fall of 2015, they rode through their Canton neighborhood all fall and when the Christmas lights dotted the houses and lawns, they’d spend time looking at the lights and singing Christmas carols.
“I kept having this feeling that the world needed a new Christmas song, and that’s just what happened from our rides,” Hullender said. “The words and the timing of the song were born on those rides.”
In 2016 the idea was shared with Stuart Settles, owner of Carrot Igloo Inc. recording studio in Woodstock where he added keyboards, engineered and produced the song. Settles was joined by Steve Stone from the Atlanta Rhythm Section, who played guitars, banjo, mandolin and dobro. Rodney Mills of Lynyrd Skynyrd and .38 Special mastered the recording. 
Others joined in production and performing, including singer Mary Beth Benson from Cartersville, Luke Berryhill and even son Dawson, who plays the sleigh bells and triangle.
He needed Santa to complete the package, and remembered his friend Derek Dugan from their days at “Full Throttle” motorcycle magazine. “One day last fall Chip called me and we reconnected,” Dugan said. “He told me the story of ‘Riding by Christmas Lights,’ and wanted to do the video with Santa.” Not only was Dugan Santa in the video, he also designed the CD package. The two plan further collaborations.
The song will be played on the Hennessey Transportation entry in the Boat Parade of Lights and on the van that Boat Parade of Lights ride to tour Magical Nights of Lights on December 9.
The proceeds from “Riding by Christmas Lights” go to a good long-term cause. “Brandi (Hullender’s wife/Dawson’s mom) and I want to build a community – not just a home, but a whole community – for adults with disabilities with their caregivers living nearby and surrounding them with love and support. We envision health care professionals, teachers, therapists and others who can live their own lives but provide the care special-needs adults require.
“It’s the one thing that keeps both Brandi and me up at night,” Hullender said. “We want to know that after we’re gone Dawson and others will have a safe, loving supportive community to surround them.” 
To listen to a short version of “Riding by Christmas Lights,” more information, make a donation or order the CD, visit or check out: It is also available on iTunes and Google Play.

Posted online 12/1/17

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