Featured Testimonial About Creighton University
Creighton was a small campus in those days. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined what this would grow into, and it’s wonderful. How did they get all this?
Be sure to listen to our Weird Creighton History interview with Doug Ryan.
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By Micah Mertes
Doug Ryan — an 86-year-old former banker and current professional Santa Claus — didn’t graduate from Creighton. But for many years, he more or less lived here.
Doug’s childhood address was 2726 Burt Steet, just a hair west of where the CL and Rachel Werner Center for the Health Sciences Education will open this August. Doug, the son of a pharmacist, grew up overlooking what was then Creighton Stadium’s football field and track.
If one of the neighborhood kids hit a baseball into the upper deck of the stadium, Doug knew how to get in. If he wanted to sneak into Creighton’s Old Gymnasium to play basketball, he knew the best route to avoid detection — tunnel > spiral staircase > gym.
Doug knew where the University stored its soda pop. He knew that whenever the Jesuit groundskeeper came around, it was time to scram. He knew that no matter how many times he got caught and chewed out, he couldn’t stay away from Creighton. It was home.
This spring, for the first time in about 75 years — more than half of Creighton’s history — Doug returned to campus. He hardly recognizes a thing.
“This is Shangri-La,” Doug says, walking up to the Old Gymnasium (officially the Vinardi Center). “This is … we’re not in Kansas anymore! Creighton was a small campus in those days. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined what this would grow into, and it’s wonderful. How did they get all this?”
Doug’s tour along the
yellow red-brown brick road was led by Brian Hanna, BSBA’22, assistant director of athletic development; and accompanied by Rod Jewell, BA’79. Rod and Doug became friends because Rod looks like Santa Claus. (More on that later.)
The first thing Doug noted about the Old Gym is … its lack of a gym. In 2017, the space was turned into a high-tech Pharmacy Skills Lab. During the renovation, many of the gym floor’s wooden planks were reclaimed and turned into Creighton keepsakes, ranging from keychains to coasters to tables.
During Doug’s tour, instead of a gym, he found a huge space full of pharmacy students (in the midst of finals). Doug and Rod stood at the entryway and whispered as they oriented themselves. One basket was right over there. That’s where the bleachers were …
Flash back to this same space in the late 1940s. Back then, 11-year-old Doug had snuck into the Old Gym so many times that Creighton finally threw up its hands and decided to offer the kid a job. He and his friend, named Mike McGuire, were hired as “waterboys” for the men’s basketball team.
Back to 2023. “I used to do that for the men’s basketball team, too,” Brian tells Doug.
Doug: “You were a waterboy!?”
Brian: “Student manager. Waterboy is demeaning. (Laughs)”
Rod: “You’re offending him, Doug.”
Doug: “I’m sorry. I’m just old.”
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Doug was a Jays waterboy/student manager in the late ’40s, as Creighton worked to rebuild its program in the wake of World War II.
The head coach at the time was Julius Vincent “Duce” Belford, who in his 40-year career held just about every role in Creighton Athletics besides football coach. Duce was also a talent scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers and a close friend to Jackie Robinson. (Like so many Creighton characters, Duce deserves his own Weird Creighton History episode.)
The team’s captain and star player was Donald “Pinky” Knowles, JD’51. The 5-foot-10 guard joined the varsity team his freshman year (1942-43), but his run was interrupted by the suspension of the basketball program during the war. Pinky himself joined the Navy, serving in Europe and the Pacific.
He returned to Creighton in 1946 and played three more seasons. Among his greatest claims to fame was sinking one of the longest three-pointers in Creighton’s history, from about three-quarters of the length of the court during a game against Tulsa. Creighton set a plaque in the floorboards of the Old Gym, right at the spot from which he’d made the shot.
Pinky went on to serve as the Douglas County Attorney, holding the post from 1963 to ’86. In 1969, he was inducted into the Creighton Athletics Hall of Fame, along with Leonard “Jimmy” Lovley, DDS’25. Creighton had launched the hall of fame just the previous year, with the inaugural inductee of Bob Gibson.
One of Doug Ryan’s most vivid memories of Pinky Knowles is when the Creighton hall-of-famer dangled Doug off the side of the Old Gym’s railing.
“Duce would have the players run around the track above the gym,” Doug says. “And Mike McGuire and I would always harass them, especially Pinky. One day, Pinky had had enough and grabbed me, flipped me over and dangled me from the running track, about 20 feet above the gym floor. I remember screaming, ‘I’m just kidding, Pinky!’”
As much as Creighton has changed, Doug says, being here again “makes certain things stand out like yesterday.”
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After his waterboy days, Doug started at Creighton Prep (back when it was part of the University) but dropped out his freshman year with dreams of becoming a gag writer for newspapers. He later got his GED after joining the Army, which stationed him in a small German town called Idar-Oberstein. Returning to Omaha after his service, he started a 47-year career at First National Bank.
Doug did a lot of odd jobs with the bank over his career, from coin wrapper to branch manager. One of his roles was bill collector. One year around Christmas, Doug called a woman who was two payments behind on her loan for a washer and dryer. He told her the items would be repossessed if she couldn’t pay. She lamented that their family had fallen on hard times.
“After we got off the phone, I felt so guilty that I knew I had to do something,” Doug says. “So I went down to the JL Brandeis store and bought a bunch of presents to send to her children.”
With the gifts, he sent this letter:
“Rich man, poor man, beggar, be of good cheer. It is the Christmas season. Your name has come to my attention.”
He was about to sign the letter “Doug Ryan,” but he realized he “couldn’t sign it with the name of the bill collector!”
Instead, he signed it “Idar Oberstein” — named after the town where he was stationed — and an Omaha Christmastime mystery was born. For the past 60 years, Doug has been sending presents to Omaha families in need. (We’re not spoiling his secret. The Omaha World-Herald revealed his identity in 2012 in a lovely column by Mike Kelly.)
Somewhere along the way, to help pay for the presents he was giving to the families, Mr. Idar Oberstein decided to start playing Santa himself. He’s done so for more than 45 years.
“I could tell you so many stories,” Doug says. “One Christmas Eve, I went to the wrong house. I knocked on the door, busted in and said ‘Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!’ A woman sat there looking at me. I asked, ‘Where are the children?’ She said, ‘What children?’”
At the age of 86, he still dons the suit for 30 to 50 appearances every December. Though he’s always on the lookout for help. That’s how he made friends with alumnus Rod Jewell.
Last fall, Rod walked into the Burger King at 72nd and Dodge, where Doug drinks a coffee and does his golf league scoring every morning. At the time, Rod had an impressive white beard, which he’d grown out during a bout with COVID.
Doug walked up to Rod. “I run a professional Santa Claus corporation,” he told him. “And I believe I could use you.”
That’s how Rod became Santa. He worked a handful of gigs for Doug last December and plans to do so again this year.
(To bring this all back full circle ... Rod's first gig as Santa was at the home of Danny McKinzie, BSBA'10, and Megan Knowles McKinzie, BSBA'10, the granddaughter of Pinky Knowles and, incidentally, classmates of Rod's daughter, Emily Jewell, BSBA'10, MS'21. Is that Creighton enough for ya? In the photo to the right, Rod/Santa gives presents to Charlie McKinzie, Pinky's great-grandson.)
Before he played Santa, Rod wanted to shadow Doug. He met up with him at a banquet for cancer survivors, where Doug has played Santa for years. (The event, incidentally, is affiliated with the CHI Henry Lynch Cancer Center at Creighton University Medical Center – Bergan Mercy, named after the world-renowned cancer physician and Creighton professor.)
Rod watched Santa Doug work the room.
“It was really something,” Rod says. “He sat and talked with everyone and lifted their spirits. He was so charming and funny.”
One man came up to Doug and said, ‘Hey, Santa, I asked you for a Corvette last year.’”
Doug: “Yeah, a red one right.”
“Sorry, they were all out.”
Even when he’s not dressed in the red suit, Doug finds endless joy in giving — be it his money, his time or his attention. “If the purse is empty, the heart is filled,” he says.
Though Doug never married and doesn’t have children or grandchildren of his own, he’s never lacked for company around Christmastime. When you truly make a city your home — starting with the University you grew up on — family stretches as far as you let it.
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Back to the spring of 2023.
Doug toured much of Creighton that day, including the corridor of state-of-the-art athletics facilities on the east side of campus.
But before he set out for the rest of his tour, he made sure he saw just about every inch of the Old Gym. Along the way, he met Debby Halstrom, executive assistant with the Information Technology division, and the two chatted about Creighton history.
Debby: “I’ve been here since 1974.”
Doug: “Oh, you rookie!”
Debby told him that before he left, he needed to check out all the framed black-and-white photos along the walls. Many of the historical images predate even Doug’s time. The Old Gym was built in 1915, after all.
As the tour group looked over the photos of the gym floor, the swimming pool, the basketball teams, Rod said, “Wait a minute …”
Rod pointed at a photo. “Doug, there’s two kids sitting there on the bench with the team. Right there.”
Doug squinted at the image. “Well, I don’t recall the event, but one of them is my friend Mike McGuire and one of them is me. I was in the sixth or seventh grade.”
(The always terrific team at the University Archives confirmed this photo was taken around the time Doug was working as the team’s waterboy.)
“This doesn’t feel real,” Doug says, laughing. “So many memories at Creighton. It was marvelous getting to grow up next door.”
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And be sure to listen to our Weird Creighton History interview with Doug Ryan.