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Culture

Mystery of engineer Santa who says boy died in his arms

Commentary: Eric Schmitt-Matzen is a mechanical engineer who plays Santa on the side. Is his recent tale true? Some on social media doubt him, but a local TV station says it's real.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


The engineer who plays Santa.

WGAL-TV screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Engineers are important. Some even drift toward self-important.

Real life, though, still has its simplest elements untouched by anything other than sheer humanity.

So we come to the story of Eric Schmitt-Matzen and the dying boy, a tale that swept the internet over the last couple of days.

Schmitt-Matzen is a mechanical engineer. He's president of Packing Seals and Engineering in Jacksboro, Tennessee.

He also has a huge white beard and, around Christmas, plays Santa at events. He even has his Santa picture on his LinkedIn profile.

Not every event is happy, though. And that's when the story he recently told comes in.

As the Knoxville News-Sentinel described, Schmitt-Matzen said he got a call from a nurse at a local hospital. A 5-year-old boy was dying and wanted to see Santa before it was too late.

Schmitt-Matzen said he put on his Santa outfit and rushed there.

He had clearly given the situation some thought. This is how he described meeting the boy's mother: "She'd bought a toy from 'PAW Patrol' (the TV show) and wanted me to give it to him. I sized up the situation and told everyone, 'If you think you're going to lose it, please leave the room. If I see you crying, I'll break down and can't do my job.'"

Like the best engineer, he wanted to do his job well. Like the best human, he wanted to ensure that the little boy had the best final memory of Santa and Christmas.

Then he went in. His description of his conversation with the boy was immensely moving.

"'They say I'm gonna die,' he told me. 'How can I tell when I get to where I'm going?' I said, 'Can you do me a big favor?' He said, 'Sure!'"

So Schmitt-Matzen says he continued like this: "When you get to those pearly gates, you just tell 'em you're Santa's No. 1 elf ... and I know they'll let you in. He said, 'They will?' I said, 'Sure!'"

The little boy then hugged Santa, said Schmitt-Matzen, and died.

Schmitt-Matzen's story has been passed around YouTube and elsewhere hundreds of thousands of times. It surely moved people.

Then on Wednesday, after Santa had given very similar interview to several TV stations, the News-Sentinel added a large caveat. It said that though Schmitt-Matzen was a real person, the paper couldn't verify his story.

I couldn't either.

I contacted Schmitt-Matzen through his LinkedIn profile and he asked for my number. I contacted him again and he didn't reply.

He told the Washington Post that he couldn't divulge details, as he wanted to protect both the nurse and the family. This would be understandable. It could also be that the hospital wouldn't acknowledge such an incident happened in order to protect the privacy of their patient and family.

Could it really be, though, that a mom would leave a Santa alone with her dying child, as Schmitt-Matzen suggested?

Now WBIR-TV of Tennessee has come forward to say that it has "independently verified several critical details of this story, but has agreed not to publish those for the sake of privacy."

The TV station said it had also talked to Schmitt-Matzen's wife, who said the event happened in mid-October -- slightly earlier that the six weeks back that Schmitt-Matzen described in interviews. She also said she hoped that at least the nurse would come forward to verify Schmitt-Matzen's account.

Her husband, however, who has been vilified in some online comments sections and accused of being a fraud, isn't keen for the family to speak.

He told WBIR: "If the family wants to come out and say who they were, I'll stand beside them. I'll support them in any way I can. But the way my life's been upset in the last three days, four days, don't do it. You have enough problems."

I wanted this story to end with the moral that there are times when one's own good fortune -- and one's own sometimes warped priorities -- are put into perspective and that this is one of them.

I still want to believe that's the case.