Peck was ordered off the station’s float and out of the parade by Food Town officials backed up by Toledo Police officers simply because he was dressed as a black Santa Claus.
His story has been independently confirmed to La Prensa by another individual who witnessed the event unfold.
Other than the Toledo Journal where it was front page news, the story was widely unreported at the time by mainstream local media, dependant upon advertising revenue from Food Town—then one of the area’s largest advertisers.
Peck, now in his 40s and living and working in Detroit where he is a member of the classic legendary Motown vocal group The Spinners, spoke with La Prensa last week. The incident Peck still vividly recalls offers additional perspective on Iott’s refusal, when challenged by Kaptur, to unequivocally say whether he would support a renewal in Congress of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Recalls Peck, “I had played Santa Claus every year at every radio station where I had worked. WIMX had its own float for the Christmas Parade, and our station’s Program Director Lou Bennett came to me and said he wanted to add a Santa Claus to the float and would I be interested?
“That’s how Soulful Santa was born. We worked up a number of promos. Soulful Santa delivered food to the homeless and brought toys to kids. We even visited an orphanage. We went house-to-house with food baskets. All of this was building up to our being in the Food Town Holiday Parade,” says Peck.
Finally came the morning of the parade which was organized by the now-defunct CitiFest Inc. and sponsored by the now-defunct Food Town.
Continues Peck, “I showed up on Saturday morning. I was wearing the “Soulful Santa” outfit. They checked us in. No one said anything at all. There was certainly nothing said about a rule that there can only be one Santa.
“Our float was in a long line waiting our turn to go onto the street. Meanwhile all the kids were enjoying us. No one cared that there was a black Santa, especially the kids.
“I was really getting into the spirit of it by shouting ‘Ho-Ho-Ho.’ I’m an actor too, you know. Everyone was just having fun,” recalls Peck.
Then in one split second came the moment of truth.
“As we were going out in the procession, a young woman came up and held up our float,” says Peck, adding, “All the other floats just went around us.
“I heard a woman’s voice yelling at the young woman on her walkie-talkie ‘Stop the black Santa Claus. Whatever you do, don’t let him go through.’
“The young woman was embarrassed because she knew I could hear the voice on the other end of the walkie-talkie. ‘I have him right here’ she said as if she were trying to let that voice know she could be heard by me,” remembers Peck.
“She stopped us,” says Peck. “We were told we would not be allowed to proceed unless I stepped down off the float.
“I asked why? No one said anything about any rules or any issues at that time. But they were adamant. The WIMX float would not be in the parade unless the black Santa steps down.
“They did not give us a reason. However, we were told later on that they already had a Santa Claus in the parade and they could only use only one Santa Claus. Otherwise it would take away from the sponsors. It seemed like a lot of mumbo-jumbo and not really the reason,” Peck says.
Peck stepped down from the float and the parade continued without him. Later he was told that he was yanked from the float “to protect the clients and sponsors of the parade. They were unwilling to make any apologies. They were very insensitive.
“It was embarrassing,” recalls Peck. “I was ridiculed on the air by DJs at other radio stations for that, for doing the right thing. I didn’t deserve that. We were just bringing joy and sharing it. Then it turned into an ugly thing.”
La Prensa asked Peck if he remembered the name of the woman who ordered the float stopped and the removal of the black Santa.
“I know that the woman on the walkie-talkie was high up behind the scenes and part of that family,” says Peck.
At that time, Pat Nowak was the public relations and marketing director of Food Town and worked close with Rich Iott. She and Iott appeared on a weekly radio show and starred in a series of costumed TV commercials celebrating Food Town’s 50th Anniversary in 1998, which, in the interest of full transparency, were written by this reporter who is distantly related to Nowak through marriage. This reporter also was the first to break the news of the Food Town-Spartan merger on Mark Standriff’s WSPD news radio show where the merger was vehemently denied by Nowak.
According to insiders at the company, the two were inseparable. Nowak certainly would not have made this bold a move on her own were it not ordered by or sanctioned by her boss, Rich Iott. After all, the ultimate responsibility—if this were indeed a reflection of a corporate policy—would lie with Iott. Thus we felt confident in asking Peck if the woman on the walkie-talkie was Pat Nowak.
“That name still sends chills down my back,” says Peck.
“Her name just stands out in my mind. I can still hear her voice screaming into that walkie-talkie, ‘Stop that Black Santa. Don’t let him get by.’’’
However, then-WIMX program director Lou Bennett, who was also on the station’s float, recalls the final confrontation that day as being with Iott.
Bennett, who is currently Director of Operations for Elite Radio Group based in Natchitoches (pronounced as Nat-it-TISCH), Louisiana, told La Prensa that “Once the parade started on its route, people told us to stop and get out. When I asked why, I was told there could only be one Santa in the parade and he was at the end.
“I said ‘huh? You knew what we’re doing and you gave us the okay.’ But the man from Food Town who stopped us pointed to Jessie and said ‘He has to go. He can’t be seen by the people.’
“I tried to explain ‘He’s not Santa, he’s Soulful Santa, and besides there’s no real Santa Claus anyway.’ But then the cops were called. Someone from Food Town apparently thought there was going to be a problem,” recalls Bennett.
“I think someone from Food Town did not like our radio station or the audience we were catering to,” adds Bennett.
He believes the man who ordered Peck off the float and out of the parade was Rich Iott. “I would put my money on it,” he says.
“I had lots of phone calls back at the radio station from other stations once they found out about it, including one from CNN. But the company we were working for at the time told us not to talk to CNN. They wanted to keep it all hush-hush,” recalls Bennett.
Pat Nowak is currently executive director of the Sylvania Area Chamber of Commerce. That organization is sponsoring a “candidate forum” which Kaptur and Iott will attend Thursday, October 7 at the Sylvania Senior Center. According to an article in the October 4 Toledo Blade, the public is being asked to send questions for the candidates to the Chamber who will then hand-select those to be asked and answered by the candidates.
Contacted by telephone Monday, Nowak told La Prensa “I don’t remember anything about that. It was 14-15 years ago.”
She suggested the order may have come from CitiFest and named several of the organization’s former executive directors.
“CitiFest were the only ones who had walkie-talkies. I didn’t have one. And we were not involved with getting people out on the street (parade route). We only gave them money and advertising.”
La Prensa telephoned three of CitiFest’s former executive directors and reached two who were named by Nowak. Both independently confirmed that the use of walkie-talkies during the parade was not restricted to CitiFest.
Michelle Welly Hills told La Prensa that “walkie-talkies were not necessarily only used by CitiFest. The volunteers had them, the staff had them.”
Asked whether Nowak could have had a walkie-talkie, Hills replied “Oh, Yeah.”
Hills further explained that: “The company that sponsors the parade (in this case, Food Town) generally also pays for the Santa Claus float, so it would have been them who would want to only have one Santa in the parade.”
Another CitiFest former executive director, who asked that her name not be used in this article, acknowledged having heard about the incident “but not from CitiFest.” We did not volunteer Nowak’s name but asked if CitiFest would have been the only ones to have access to a walkie-talkie during the parade.
“It might have been Pat Nowak. If anyone had access to one, it would have been her,” was the reply.
La Prensa made numerous written attempts by e-mail to obtain Rich Iott’s comments for this story and to present his views on issues of concern to Latino voters. Although our communication was acknowledged by Iott’s media staff, he ignored our requests.
Angry former Seaway Food Town workers lashed out at their former boss Rich Iott in Toledo Sunday, October 3.
Iott campaigns as a job creator. That's why some former workers gathered outside the old, boarded-up DeVeaux Village Food Town to oppose Iott’s congressional run. According to coverage on WTOL-TV, Channel 11, the workers allege Iott is just a lousy businessman who cost them their jobs and pocketed millions.
In 2,000, Iott sold his family owned Food Town and Pharm stores to Michigan-based Spartan Stores. After the sale, Iott was hired by Spartan as a consultant. He even sat on its board of directors.
Three years later, Spartan closed all the stores, throwing 5,000 people out of work.
On Sunday, Oct. 3, the Toledo Blade strongly endorsed Marcy Kaptur for re-election over Rich Iott.
Editor’s Note: The current stores in Michigan and Ohio operating under the Food Town name are not affiliated or owned by Iott or his family. The same is true of the Seaway Market Place in Toledo.
On the Internet:
WTVG Kaptur-Iott Debate
WTOL News Story
Toledo Blade Endorsement