Phillip Wilson, who personified Santa, dies in his sleep

Phillip Wilson once said playing the role of Santa Claus was "the best job in the world." Wilson died in his sleep earlier this week at age 64. (File photo)

Phillip Wilson once said playing the role of Santa Claus was “the best job in the world.” Wilson died in his sleep earlier this week at age 64. (File photo)

By Riley Manning

Daily Journal

TUPELO – A beloved part of the Tupelo community’s spirit has passed away.

Phillip Wilson, who personified the role of Santa Claus at The Mall at Barnes Crossing, died in his sleep earlier this week at his home in Ripley at the age of 64.

Jeff Snyder, the mall’s general manager, said the coming holidays won’t feel quite the same without him.

“So many people came and had their pictures taken with him, and put them up in their home or in an album,” Snyder said. “For many people, when they think of Santa Claus, he’s the face they see. He was a really great guy.”

In an interview with Mud and Magnolias magazine last year, Wilson said he dove into the Santa character in 2005, when his first grandchild was born. In 2006, he took his first public Santa gig at the Ripley Main Street open-house and Christmas parade. The next year, he dropped off his business card and became Santa at the Barnes Crossing Mall.

“I believe I have the best job in the world,” he said in the interview.

Salvation Army Angel Tree coordinator Katrina Patty witnessed Wilson’s dedication firsthand as she spent countless hours in the mall tending to the Army’s Christmas campaign. She said over the years she and Wilson became quite good friends.

“He’d come over and hide out with us when he needed to catch his breath, but as soon as a child would walk up, he’d snap right back into being Santa,” she said. “My boys are 12 and 16, and we still go get our pictures taken with him. He would be just as silly as he could be, and people loved him for it.”

The loss of Wilson has been felt in the community, as evidenced by social media. Mall marketing director Cindy Childs posted a notification of Wilson’s death on The Mall at Barnes Crossing Facebook page Thursday afternoon. Within three hours, the post garnered 106 shares, 358 “likes,” and 60 comments.

Comments ranged from a simple, “So sad,” to an emphatic, “BEST SANTA EVER.”

“He was Santa 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Patty said. “He is so going to be missed.”

Wilson’s memorial service will be held Monday at his home church, Ripley First United Methodist Church, at 2 p.m.

riley.manning@journalinc.com